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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1894) [8:55]
Jeux. Ballet en 1 acte, poème dansé (1912) [17:58]
Nocturnes. Triptyque symphonique pour orchestre et chœurs (1897-99) [24:16]
Les Cris de Paris/Geoffroy Jourdan
Les Siècles/François-Xavier Roth
rec. January 2018, Philharmonie de Paris
Bonus DVD
Marche ecossaise sur un thème populaire
Jeux. Ballet en 1 acte, poème dansé
Nocturnes. Triptyque symphonique pour orchestre et chœurs
Coro de la Orquestra Ciudad de Granada/Héctor Eliel Márquez
Les Siècles/François-Xavier Roth
rec. live, June 2018 Palais de Charles V, Alhambra, Granada, Spain
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM905291 [51:06]

Though this disc arrived too late to be reviewed during the Debussy centenary year, it is most definitely a contribution – and a notable one at that – to the Debussy celebrations.

François-Xavier Roth and his period-instrument orchestra, Les Siècles, have provided me with some of my most stimulating listening in recent years. I’ve acquired and greatly enjoyed most of their releases, including Ravel’s ballet, Daphnis et Chloé, music by Saint-Saëns, two great Stravinsky ballets, and, most relevantly to this present release, their disc of Debussy orchestral works, including La Mer. As a generalisation, I think it would be fair to say that none of the Roth releases have supplanted the leading versions of the works in question played on modern instruments and conducted by luminaries such as Charles Munch, Pierre Monteux and Bernard Haitink. However, all the Roth discs that I have heard have complemented the ‘traditional’ versions in an ear-opening way and a combination of the conductor’s interpretative skill and the fascinating timbres and transparent textures produced by the period instruments have made me listen to the works in question in a fresh and exciting way.

The CD opens with Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. Immediately, I was struck by the seductive sounds made by the solo flute and, shortly afterwards, by the horns. I was very slightly unsettled around 1:28 when the full orchestra is involved. Here I would have liked a little more forward momentum from Roth; I felt that the music didn’t sound as rapturous as it can – and should. However, thereafter all was well; I found Roth’s selection of tempi and the way he negotiated Debussy’s fluctuations of tempo very much to my taste. The solo flute (Marion Ralincourt, I presume) is enchanting and supple throughout but there are also lots of other beguiling solos – oboe, clarinet, horn – to savour. This is a very beautiful performance, distinguished by ear-catching sonorities and highly skilled, idiomatic playing.

Jeux is a score which I’ve never found easy to grasp – the fault is mine, of course. Perhaps it’s a hindrance that I’ve never seen it danced, though in some ways it’s surprising that the sketchy scenario – helpfully laid out for us in the booklet – could inspire a ballet that lasts for as long as some 17 minutes. To appreciate the score properly you need a supple performance that’s light on its feet and that’s what is provided here. Aided by the subtle sounds produced by the period instruments, Roth presents a performance which has the sort of textural clarity that one associates with Pierre Boulez. He ensures that the rhythms are light, clear and buoyant and he’s supported to the hilt by the members of Les Siècles, whose playing is athletic and expertly weighted. The performance is full of light and shade and I found it very convincing.

The set of Nocturnes has long been a favourite Debussy work with me, ever since I bought on LP Claudio Abbado’s fine DG recording with the Boston Symphony (now available on Eloquence ELQ4806574). Since then I’ve acquired many very fine recordings and I enjoyed this one as much as any I’ve heard in recent years. In ‘Nuages’ I loved the wonderfully veiled sound of the strings in the opening minutes of the piece. Roth and his players conjure a very subtle sound picture throughout the piece; the performance exudes atmosphere. ‘Fêtes’ is equally successful. The gaiety in the music at the start is very well conveyed. At 2:57 the muted trumpets successfully give the impression of a distant procession, after which the crescendo as the marching band gets closer is well managed. My sole reservation is that when the band is in full view – in other words, when the orchestra is playing flat out – the percussion is a bit too dominant. The subdued ending, as the festivities peter out, is very well done.

For the final movement, ‘Sirènes’, Debussy introduces a wordless female chorus. As Denis Herlin points out in his notes, the composer was very specific: he wanted the singers ‘placed within the orchestra and not in front of it’ and the sounds of the singers 'must not “stick out” but ”blend”.’ I’m not sure how often his instructions are obeyed precisely in performance; it may be impractical to seat singers within the body of an orchestra for just one item on a programme. (The conductor Ludovic Morlot adopted, quite successfully, something of a halfway house approach at a concert I attended last year.) When listening to an audio recording it isn’t always possible to discern where the conductor has placed the singers. On this occasion I was pretty sure early on that Roth had arranged his singers in small groups within the orchestra and I found that the vocal parts were very successfully integrated into the overall sound picture. (On the accompanying DVD, which preserves a different performance and which I viewed after listening to the audio recording, a number of groups of singers can be seen seated alongside players in the string sections,) The performance of ‘Sirènes’ is full of finesse and expertly controlled; Debussy’s ever-shifting perspectives are successfully laid out, including, within the overall sound picture, the different vocal parts. The ending is wonderful as the Sirens fade from our sight – or, more properly, from our hearing.

I enjoyed these performances very much and admired the playing greatly. The performances are captured in nice sound which allows the orchestral textures to register clearly but without any sense of highlighting while the sound of the full ensemble is presented very pleasingly. I should also add that the booklet notes by Denis Herlin are very good.

One can’t overlook that the playing time is rather short and in this respect the purchasers of the CD version enjoy something of an advantage over download collectors since the CD is accompanied by a DVD of a concert given in the Alhambra, Granada a few months after the audio performances were recorded. The two main works are repeated but we lose the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune; instead the orchestra plays Marche ecossaise, which I wouldn’t regard as one of Debussy’s most important compositions. The DVD is good, presenting a well-shot if conventional film of the concert. Over the opening credits we see some fine external pictures of the magnificent Alhambra. I was mildly surprised to see in the DVD credits a reference to the pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, since he does not appear in the concert that we see. I wonder if in the concert itself he played, perhaps, the Fantaisie for piano and orchestra. If so, it may be that his performance could not be included on either the DVD or the CD, possibly for contractual reasons. That could account for the fairly short playing time.

With the benefit of both audio and visual elements preserving fine performances, this is an attractive Debussy package.

John Quinn

Previous review: Dan Morgan

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