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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
La Mer (1903-1905) [26:15]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Ma Mère l’Oye (1908-1912) [28:44]
Het Gelders Orkest/Antonello Manacorda
rec. 2013, Arnhem, Muzenzaal Musis (Ravel), 2017, Parkzaal Musis (Debussy)
Reviewed in SACD stereo.

The Challenge Classics label has a good reputation for quality recordings and this is no exception. 2018 will see numerous releases marking the centenary of Debussy’s passing and, while no such claim is made for this recording it is to be hoped it will ride this particular wave and not sink below the tide of new titles.

Het Gelders Orkest is a top-notch orchestra, not with the highest of profiles, but with cuts in arts funding in recent years the survivors can have their pick of the best musicians in the business. I was a little concerned about the keen ear of SACD audio being perhaps a little too cut-glass and detailed to give the full sweep of Debussy’s La Mer in Arnhem’s new Parkzaal acoustic, but there is a good balance between instrumental definition and the full ‘concert hall’ effect. The climax at the end of De l’aube à midi sur la mer is terrific, the dancing rhythms of Jeux de vagues are well observed and played with infectious vitality, and the grim struggle of the final Dialogue du vent et de la mer has plenty of drama.

There is of course stiff competition for this repertoire. La Mer was given atmospheric presence by Stéphane Denève and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra on the Chandos label (review), the blend of instrumental sonorities helped by the spacious Royal Concert Hall in Glasgow. Past conductors such as Charles Munch have made their mark, and more recent candidates include Jun Märkl on the budget Naxos label (review). Antonello Manacorda has the measure of this score, and I have no real complaints. The overall impression slightly misses the thrills and chills of Stéphane Denève, compared to whom he is consistently broader in terms of duration. This is most telling in the last movement, which could do with an ounce or two more urgency, but once again the most crucial moments deliver with great satisfaction.

Ravel’s Ma Mère l’Oye or Mother Goose Suite is another hugely popular work, here in its expanded 1912 orchestration. Manacorda is slow with the Pavane de la Belle au bois dormant, emphasising the atmosphere of sleep rather than the elegance of a pavane. Les entretiens de la Belle et de la Bête moves along pleasantly but didn’t get my heart racing. The recording is less detailed here than it was for La mer with everything a degree or so more distant, something which doesn’t help some of the solos. The playing is very good, but I don’t hear as much of the distinctive flavour of these lovely pieces. Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw Orchestra (review) give the music more character, adding nervous momentum to Petit Poucet for instance, which again is just a bit too leaden in Arnhem. Laideronnette, Impératrice des Pagodes has more pace and works well, with subtle gong strokes and plenty of atmosphere in the central section. There is arguably a certain amount of wallowing going on in the final Apothéose (Le jardin féerique), which I feel works better when it has at least some connection to the dance feel of the other movements, but the players carry off the slower tempo well enough and the last few bars are sublime.

This is one of those releases that I fear may find it tough to make a significant impact, which is a shame since this is a good La Mer if a slightly less convincing Ma Mère l’Oye. One more work would have made this more attractive as a CD release, as the 55-minute playing time is a bit below par for a premium price product carrying mainstream repertoire.

Dominy Clements


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