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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
La Mer (1903-03) [25:44]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Le Sacre du Printemps (1910-13) [35:44]
Duisburger Philharmoniker/Jonathan Darlington
rec. live, 3-4 February 2010 (Debussy); 9-10 September 2009 (Stravinsky), Philharmonie Mercatorhalle, Duisburg DDD
Also available as 180 g vinyl LP.
ACOUSENCE ACO-CD 21710 [61:52]

The city of Duisburg is situated in the Ruhr area of Germany, in North Rhine-Westphalia. It is an important steel-producing centre. The city’s orchestra, the Duisburger Philharmoniker was established in 1877 and has numbered among its Music Directors Eugen Jochum (1930-32) and, later, his brother, Georg Ludwig. In 2002 the British conductor, Jonathan Darlington (b. 1956) became Music Director, serving until 2011.
I’m sorry to say that until this disc arrived with me I’d not heard of the Duisburger Philharmoniker but on the evidence of what we hear on this disc Jonathan Darlington had trained them into a pretty useful outfit. The playing is good throughout both performances. Darlington’s direction of both pieces is sound and reliable too and I don’t think anyone who buys this disc will feel they’ve been short-changed even if neither performance betters the very best in the catalogue - the competition in both works is white hot.
I mean no disrespect at all to the musicians when I say that perhaps the chief attraction of this release is the recorded sound. Indeed, such a comment is far from disrespectful for such is the scrutiny of the recording that were there any shortcomings in the playing they would be immediately apparent: no shortcomings are revealed. The recordings were made live in the Mercatorhalle in Duisburg, a modern concert hall that has been the orchestra’s main venue since 2007.
The disc appears in Acousence’s Living Concert Series. It’s worth taking a look at the label’s website to get a sense of the philosophy behind the company’s recordings. The sound in which these performances is captured is clear and well-focused. It has body and depth and there’s a good, wide stereo spread. Perhaps there’s not quite enough string bass foundation; the sound tends towards brightness, at least on my equipment, though “brightness” isn’t a euphemism for shrillness or glare. The orchestra sounds exceptionally ‘present’. I had the sensation that I was seated in the front row of the stalls, perhaps ten rows back from the front. Ideally, perhaps just a little distancing might have been welcome but I never had the feeling that the orchestra was ‘in my face’.
What the recording does allow is the registration of countless small details which in most performances of a teeming, turbulent score like Le Sacre just get submerged. So, for example, in the third movement of La Mer at 2:56 we can hear quite audibly tiny little descending figures on the cor anglais which I’ve never heard before but which definitely augment the texture. Again, in the ‘Rondes printanières’ section of Le Sacre at 3:10 we hear soft trilling flutes; they’re usually audible in a recording but what I’d not previously realised is that some of the other woodwind choir (the clarinets?) are trilling underneath the flutes and hearing these instruments fills out the harmony in a telling way. These are but a couple of examples of significant and usually submerged detail coming through in both of these scores. Usually this occurs without any sense of undue prominence or spotlighting of the instruments.
There is one occasion when detail comes through in a surprising way. In Le Sacre, during the ‘Cercles mystérieux des adolescentes’ section some most unusual string harmonies can be heard. It’s interesting to hear them but I did wonder if their audibility was because either the conductor or the engineers had brought the instruments unnaturally into the foreground. That, however, was the sole occasion when I heard a detail and thought it sounded unnatural. For the most part I revelled in this extra detail and the recording as a whole has huge impact: the percussion in Le Sacre is thrillingly reported.
Both performances are good. Jonathan Darlington conducts both scores with understanding and conviction. He brings lots of energy and a sense of ebb and flow to the second movement of La Mer and there’s admirable vigour to his reading of the third movement. There were one or two occasions in Le Sacre when I would have liked him to push the tempo forward a little more - the concluding ‘Danse sacrale’ is a case in point - but overall he conveys the primitive savagery and rhythmic tension of the work well.
I wouldn’t suggest that either performance is a first choice for these masterpieces. However, if you add this disc to your library you’ll acquire two very good performances of seminal works presented in recordings that will make you hear these great and complex scores anew.
John Quinn  

Masterwork Index: La Mer ~~ Le Sacre du Printemps