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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Images pour orchestre (1905-1912) [38:36]
Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1891-1894) [11:23]
La Mer (1903-1905) [25:50]
Singapore Symphony Orchestra/Lan Shui
rec. August 2004 (La Mer), July 2009 (Images), July 2013 (Prélude), Esplanade Concert Hall, Singapore
Reviewed as a 24-bit 44.1/88.2/96kHz download
pdf booklet/inlay card included
BIS BIS-1837 SACD [76:43]

BIS introduced me to Lan Shui and the Singapore Symphony with Seascapes, a truly scrumptious SACD that went straight to the top of my list of Recordings of the Year 2007 (review). The La Mer from that disc is reprised here, but the rest of this collection – in varying sample rates - is new. What a tempting prospect it is, given the quality of this band and the lovely acoustics of the Esplanade Concert Hall. Indeed, of all their recordings that have come my way only one, Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony, has left me seriously underwhelmed (review). As for that La Mer, I described it as ‘vivid and vibrant’; it certainly outclasses Jun Märkl (review) and Stéphane Denève (review) and, for me at least, it shares top billing with the vintage Ernest Ansermet (review).
 
Intended as a two-piano follow-up to his first set of Images for solo piano (1905) Debussy’s Images pour orchestre is probably one of his best-known works. This 2009 recording, taken from a 44.1kHz original, has a brighter, more sharply etched sound than I remember from Seascapes – probably due to the lower sampling rate – but Gigues gets a decent outing nonetheless. As ever Lan Shui calibrates dynamics with sensitivity, although some may find the quieter passages a little too quiet; indeed, I don’t recall a recording in which Gigues gets off to such a distant start.
 
Par les rues et par les chemins, the first piece in the three-part Ibéria, finds the SSO at their animated best; rhythms are well articulated and momentum never falters. However, it’s a little short on temperament – I miss the energy of Ansermet, now on Decca Eloquence - but otherwise it’s a fair performance. Not so Les parfums de la nuit which, despite some tactile playing, lacks its usual loveliness; I prefer a lighter, more permeable reading than this. As for Le matin d’un jour de fête it’s much too well-mannered for a celebration. In that polite context the sudden spurt of energy at the close seems out of kilter with the rest of the piece. Alas, it doesn’t get any better; Rondes de printemps, hobbled by the conductor’s refusal to loosen his grip on the music, has little of the dance about it.
 
Lan Shui’s Images simply doesn’t get the idiomatic and instinctive lift that makes his La Mer so memorable. A matter for concern, perhaps, as such qualities are de rigueur in the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. Some may feel that Karajan’s 1965 recording for DG - with Karlheinz Zoller a hauntingly mellifluous soloist - is too moulded, but for sheer pulsing beauty and purity of line it’s hard to beat. Indeed, that and Ansermet’s uniquely coloured account are the most perfect distillations of this game-changing piece that I know. By contrast Lan Shui’s reading seems a tad prosaic – his breathier, warmer-sounding soloist is somewhat earthbound - but still he conjures up enough magic to keep one listening to the end. I even registered a goose bump or two along the way. Not bad, then, but I still relish the liberating loveliness of Karajan and Ansermet; at least this newcomer isn't as soul-crimping a performance as Märkl's. The 24/96 recording seems better balanced and more atmospheric than Images.
 
Readers who want to know why I rate Lan Shui’s La Mer so highly need look no further than my Seascapes review. Within seconds of starting De l'aube à midi sur la mer it’s clear this 2004 recording is in another league entirely, both musically and technically. The performance is simply ravishing, and the Singapore band play with a blend of finesse and feeling that compares favourably with Europe’s best. As for the recording itself I felt it was one of BIS’s best then and I still do so now; spacious, detailed and so alive this is a La Mer that all Debussians should hear. I’d urge listeners to seek out Seascapes – the music sounds even better in Super Audio - but if the Bridge, Glazunov and Zhou Long pieces don’t appeal just lift La Mer from this download.
 
It would be cavalier to write off this fine orchestra and conductor on the basis of a few uneven performances. The SSO certainly didn’t do as well at the 2014 BBC Proms as I’d hoped; that’s a pity, for their recorded Rachmaninov – especially with pianist Yevgeny Sudbin – is really rather good. As for issuing old and new material together BIS have done this before; to their credit they do make that clear in the booklet.
 
Lan Shui's La Mer is still one of the best on record; alas, the fillers are rather ordinary.
 
Dan Morgan
twitter.com/mahlerei

Masterwork Index: La Mer