Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Première Suite d’Orchestre (orch. Debussy) (1882-84) [26:40]
La Mer (1903-05) [23:04]
Les Siècles/François-Xavier Roth
rec. live, 13 April 2012, Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Rome (La Mer); 2 February 2012, Cité de la Musique, Paris, 13 October 2012, Abbaye de Royaumont (Suite)

We’ve reviewed several discs by the orchestra Les Siècles and their conductor, François-Xavier Roth. They are perhaps best known for playing music of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth centuries on period instruments. However, they’ve also undertaken contemporary music played on modern instruments (review). Most of their discography of which I’m aware, however, is from their period repertoire. Into this category falls a disc of music by Dukas (review), which I’ve not heard, a mixed programme of Spanish-themed music by French composers (review), their coupling of Le Sacre du Printemps and Petrouchka (review) and a recording of L’Oiseau de feu (ASM 06), which we don’t seem to have reviewed. Recently I got hold of a couple of their earlier CDs, including this Debussy disc.

The short playing time might act as a deterrent but in fact I think there are good reasons to set that consideration aside; this is an important Debussy disc.

In the first place its importance lies in the inclusion of the Première Suite d’Orchestre. This, I imagine is its first recording; it may be the only one to date. This recording was made during two concerts – and despite the fact that two venues were involved the recording seemed pretty consistent to me. The first of these, in Paris in February 2012, was actually the first performance of the work. That may seem incredible given the date of composition. However, Denis Herlin explains in his very useful notes that manuscript score of the piece, which was a student work, was effectively lost to the public view shortly after composition. That’s particularly remarkable since there were two manuscripts: one of the orchestral score and one of a two-piano version. It seems that the scores were in the possession of the family of Henry Lerolle, a painter friend of the composer. Perhaps the family forgot about the scores or didn’t appreciate their importance. Anyway, it seems that the scores were sold in New York in 1958. Some forty years later they were acquired by a collector who deposited them with the Morgan Library in New York. The piano version was published in 2008. The orchestration of the third movement, Rêve has been lost and the version we hear is scored by the French composer, Philippe Manoury (b. 1952).

The Suite is in four movements: Fête, Ballet, Rêve, Cortège et Bacchanale. In the first two movements I think you might struggle to identify the composer. The first movement is spirited and energetic while Ballet has some faintly Middle-Eastern overtones. Rêve seems to me to contain the most interesting music in the suite. The scoring gives us more than a few pointers to the mature Debussy. I don’t mean to criticise by implication the work of Philippe Manoury at all but it must have been a challenge to avoid scoring music of this nature without a degree of hindsight for the music itself is subtle and full of fantasy. This movement certainly gives us the clearest signpost, I think, towards the mastery to come. It is very well played indeed and seems to me to be most sympathetically conducted. Cortège et Bacchanale is colourfully scored. The first section, which I take to be the Cortège, contains some pretty red-blooded passages for brass and percussion. Midway through the movement (4:18 - 6:26) there’s a lovely episode, relaxed and lyrical in which woodwinds, particularly the flute, have a leading role; there’s also some evocative writing for strings which here comes across as very mellow. In this passage the subtle colours hint strongly at what was soon to flow from Debussy’s pen. At 6:26 the Bacchanale begins. This is vigorous and eventually the brass and percussion material from the Cortège is revisited, presaging an emphatic finish.

This is early Debussy but it’s well worth hearing. As I listened I thought to myself that one could argue that it stands in relation to the composer’s major works in a similar way that some of Delius’s early scores stand in his output. The music was completely new to me but the performance gives every indication of being a fine and sympathetic one. The clarity and piquancy of textures that the instruments of Les Siècles provide enhance ones appreciation of the music significantly.

With La Mer Roth and his orchestra are on much more familiar ground – and face significant competition. However, this present performance has a great deal to commend it. Interpretatively it is persuasive and characterful, I believe, but I mean no disrespect to the conducting of François-Xavier Roth when I say that it’s the sound and clarity that he obtains from his orchestra that is especially interesting.

The opening of ‘De l’aube à midi sur la mer’ is delicate, atmospheric and quite measured. From the outset one appreciates the clarity and transparency of the performance. A significant amount of inner detail is readily audible yet never is the detail forced upon the listener. The start of the second half (from 4:41) pulses with life and colour and then as the end approaches Roth invests the music with excellent tension before the grandeur of the sea is demonstrated in the closing bars. In ‘Jeux de vagues’ the capricious play of the waves comes through very well. In these pages I admired the rhythmic acuity and, once again, the transparency of the performance. Little points of detail frequently come out. At the start of ‘Dialogue du vent et de la mer’ the turbulence of the winds and currents is well-nigh tangible; you can almost see a foam-flecked seascape. Though much of the appeal of this performance of La Mer comes from the lightness of orchestral texture as compared with a modern orchestra this final movement demonstrates that the musicians of Les Siècles are well able to provide the necessary power at climaxes. From 5:43 the pace of the music picks up appreciably and the performance is very exciting. To be truthful, I don’t think I’ve ever been so aware of everything that’s going on in the score, even from the hands of such master conductors as Abbado or Haitink.

Everyone will have one or more recording of La Mer which they especially admire. My own favourites include the versions conducted by Abbado, Cantelli, Denève and Haitink. This recording from François-Xavier Roth, idiomatically conducted and splendidly played, may not supplant any of them but it certainly complements them.

The recorded sound in both performances is very good. Recently I castigated this label for the very poor documentation accompanying a release by Roth and Les Siècles of music by Saint-Saëns. It’s a pleasure, therefore to be able to say that on this occasion the documentation is in a completely different league. The booklet includes an excellent, detailed essay in French and English as well as a list of all the players and the instruments on which they play.

This disc contains an important early score by Debussy, which may not otherwise be available, and his orchestral masterpiece in a fine performance the sheer sound of which is often revelatory. All Debussy collectors should hear these performances.

John Quinn

Support us financially by purchasing this from