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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918) 
Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1894) [9:47]
Le Martyre de saint Sébastien (Fragments symphoniques) (1911) [23:46]
La Mer (1905) [23:26]
Philharmonia Orchestra/Pablo Heras-Casado
rec. 2018, Henry Wood Hall and Royal Festival Hall, London
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM902310 [57:04]

This is the latest volume in Harmonia Mundi's ongoing Debussy series, celebrating the centenary of the composer's death. The release features three orchestral works, two well known scores, Prélude à L’après-midi d’un faune and La Mer, bookending the less familiar Le martyre de Saint Sébastien symphonic fragments. The orchestra is the Philharmonia, under Pablo Heras-Casado, a conductor I’m not at all familiar with, but who has received favourable reviews for some of his other work on this label.

Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune is an apt piece to begin. It was Debussy's first orchestral work to be given in concert and published, and the most frequently performed during his lifetime. Testimony to its popularity, at the premiere in December 1894 it was encored. With this lush score the composer broke new ground, stretching tonality to its limits. It's considered by many, including the late Pierre Boulez, to be the beginning of modern music. I love the work, and the recordings I've turned to in the past are the 1964 Karajan recording with the BPO, and Previn's LSO reading. This latest realisation stands up well in comparison. The opening flute solo is evocative and intensely beautiful. Heras-Casado sets an agreeable pace and directs a powerfully sensuous and alluring performance, brimming with romantic ardour and awash with detail and subtle nuance.

The highlight of the disc, for me, has to be Le Martyre de saint Sébastien symphonic fragments. Unlike the other two works featured, this is a comparative rarity. The work started life as a mystery written by Gabriele D’Annunzio. It combined the myth of Adonis with the Christian sacrifice of St. Sebastian. In its original form it was an amalgam of cantata, opera and ballet for orchestra, chorus and soloists, with five acts lasting five hours. Much controversy arose at its premiere and the Catholic Church banned it. Debussy later reworked it into the four symphonic fragments we have here. André Caplet had a hand in proceedings. In this form it has been performed more frequently. There's no doubt that it contains some of the composer's finest music, and listening to this compelling performance leads me to immediately question the music’s relative neglect. Heras-Casado coaxes some luminous sonorities from the strings and wind in the opening La Cour des lys. The music becomes more animated and urgent in Danse extatique which follows. The brass sound is particularly wonderful and richly burnished, adding contrast to the diaphanous string passage. La Passion introduces some dark, sombre elements, evoking a sense of portent, with the Philharmonia strings radiating a sensuous aura. In Le Bon Pasteur, Heras-Casado's control of dynamics and pointing of detail in the orchestral lines is breathtaking, as is his dramatic build up to a stunning climax in the closing bars.

La Mer is one of the composer's most frequently performed orchestral scores. Composed between 1903-1905, it initially got off to a shaky start, but after a second performance in Paris in 1908 it finally won the hearts of the public. It takes the form of three symphonic sketches. Debussy's love of the sea dated back to his childhood when he visited Cannes and the Mediterranean resorts of Italy. The work captures the very essence of the sea from different perspectives, From Dawn To Midday On The Sea, Play Of Waves  and Dialogue Of The Wind And The Sea,  with each movement sensuously feeding our thoughts and imagination. There's life and urgency in Heras-Casado's highly evocative reading, aided by the lush orchestral textures he elicits from the orchestra. I'm particularly drawn to the ominous menace he instils into the finale, not always achieved in some performances I've listened to. Here the elemental forces are depicted in a powerful, dazzling stormy triumph. All told, he displays a complete mastery of the score, remaining faithful to dynamic and expressive markings and, at all times, allowing the solo contributions expressive freedom.

These three orchestral showpieces have been caught in splendid sound and the engineering team have worked wonders in achieving ideal balance to facilitate clarity of detail and textures. Harmonia Mundi have gone to town on presentation. The disc is housed in a card sleeve which sits in a sturdy, attractively designed box. A well-written booklet in French and English is included. These top-notch performances constitute a worthy centenary tribute.

Stephen Greenbank


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