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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1894) [8:55]
Jeux (1912) [17:38]
Nocturnes (1897-1899)
Nuages [7:11]
Fêtes [6:37]
Sirènes [10:28]
Les Cris de Paris/Geoffroy Jourdain
Les Siècles/François-Xavier Roth
rec. 2018, Philharmonie de Paris
Reviewed as a 24/44.1 download from eClassical
Pdf booklet included
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM905291 [50:49]

As debuts go, François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles’ first appearance at the BBC Proms in 2013, with Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps, could hardly have been more successful. (That’s more than could be said for the ballet’s infamous premiere a hundred years earlier.) What a vital and revealing Prom that was, breathing new life into a work whose raw energy and impact are in danger of being diluted by too many routine performances. Happily, Roth’s recording of the piece, coupled with a fine Pétrouchka, confirmed that very positive first impression (Actes Sud Musicales).

And far from being a flash in the pan, Roth and his period-instrument orchestra went on to deliver a marvellous account of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé (Harmonia Mundi), to which they’ve since added a recording of the same composer’s Ma Mère l'Oye (Harmonia Mundi HMM905281). In between, Roth and the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln have offered us a most unusual view of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, one which I described as ‘old Vienna refracted through a strange new lens’ (Harmonia Mundi). He’s certainly not alone in his desire to liberate music from long-established – and often stultifying – performance practices, but, as I’ve discovered, not every project has yielded new insights. For instance, I found France/Espagna, a Roth/Les Siècles album of French lollipops with a Spanish flavour, only ‘intermittently enjoyable’ (Actes Sud Musicales).

Interestingly, that collection featured Debussy’s Ibéria. Here’s what I wrote at the time: ‘[It’s] nimble but rather cool. Indeed, these strike me as crisp, clear-eyed performances rather than soft-grained, sense-stroking ones.’ Perhaps not the qualities one might look for in that most languid of pieces, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, which the composer described as a ‘very free’ response to Stéphane Mallarmé’s eponymous poem. Indeed, it’s widely acknowledged as a pivotal score that changed the course of music history. My go-to recordings of the piece include two modern-instrument ones: Herbert von Karajan’s 1965 BPO version (Deutsche Grammophon) and the 1957 Decca classic with Ernest Ansermet and the OSR. My period choice is Jos van Immerseel’s, with Anima Eterna Brugge (Zig-Zag Territoires ZZT313).

Roth’s Prélude was dividing the online music community just hours after it was released. On the one hand were the traditionalists, who see the piece as a soft-edged ‘impression’, very much in tune with the painterly aesthetic of the time; on the other were listeners who relish a more forensic, even revisionist reading of this old favourite. And Roth certainly clarifies those textures, his flautist clear and forthright, climaxes emerging like small sunbursts. In short, this Prélude is firmly done, with strong, unambiguous outlines. As for the similarly precise recording, it further diminishes any sense of reverie. That said, what I miss is the complex and alluring orchestral blend, which, in turn, creates such a ravishing colour palette. Ansermet, aided by superb engineering, is sans pareil in that respect, as indeed he is in bringing out every last shift and shimmer of this miraculous score. More important, the latter combines a degree of impetus – Roth is just too static – with an unrivalled evanescence.

I really wanted to like this Prélude, especially as the playing is so polished. However, Roth’s mission to unpack and reinvigorate iconic repertoire – a plan that’s worked well in Ravel, Stravinsky and Mahler – hasn’t succeeded here. Some may like what Roth does with the piece, and laud him for his scholarship, but Immerseel’s Prélude proves that, when more sensitively framed, ‘authenticity’ offers considerable rewards. Indeed, the latter’s performance, which unequivocally sounds like it’s played on period instruments, achieves what Roth somehow fails to bring off. I really admire Immerseel’s ease and earthiness; not only that, his fluidity of phrase and depth of feeling animate the music in ways his rival can only dream of. As a bonus, the Zig-Zag album, nicely recorded, includes a vigorous, sharply characterised La mer and an alert, well-shaped set of Images.

Jeux, written for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1912, was Debussy’s last complete orchestral work. As such, it inhabits a very different musical milieu to that of the Prélude, although it does contain faint, almost ghostly echoes of that earlier opus. Roth certainly seems more comfortable with the clear rhythms and leaner textures of this poème dansé, which is played with a mix of warmth and detail. What’s also striking is that Roth places Jeux firmly in the company of Stravinsky’s Pétrouchka, premiered the year before. Yes, Roth is absolutely right to emphasise the clean-limbed modernity of the piece, which Les Siècles play with great virtuosity and a sure sense of style. I’m still inordinately fond of Ansermet’s recording, but this newcomer is a worthy companion for that old classic.

After that very pleasant surprise I was almost ready to forgive Roth his disappointing Prélude. But, as they say, it ain’t over ‘til the fat lady sings. Which brings me rather neatly to Nocturnes, with its wordless female choir at the close. That follows an over-explicit Nuages and a muscular Fêtes. The latter, with terrifically incisive timps, is suitably exciting, but Roth’s Sirènes is much too strident for my taste. No sultry temptresses here, just hectoring harpies. Really, bizarre is too polite a word for this screechy sign-off. I then turned to Bernard Haitink’s Concertgebouw version, recorded for Philips in 1979. His choir, perhaps too distant, is at least more atmospheric, the performance itself more sensibly calibrated. In fact, if you’re looking for decent, middle-of-the road accounts of the three works presented here – plus several others – then the Dutchman’s classic twofer is a good place to start. Adventurous listeners, meanwhile, will just have to hope for more from the excellent Immerseel. (Incidentally, his refreshing take on Carl Orff’s Carmina burana was one of my top picks for 2014.)

A patchy and perplexing release; proceed with caution.

Dan Morgan

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