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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Printemps – Suite symphonique, L 68/(61) (1887; orch. Henri Büsser, 1912) [16:32]
Rapsodie pour orchestre et saxophone, L 104/(98) (1901-1911/1919?) [10:24]
Marche écossaise sur un thème populaire, L 83/(77) (1890/c. 1908) [7:07]
Berceuse héroïque, L 140/(132) (1914) [5:38]
Deux Danses pour harpe et orchestre à cordes, L 113/(103) (1904) [10:07]
I. Danse sacrée [4:49]
II. Danse profane [5:19]
Nocturnes – Triptyque symphonique pour orchestre et choeur, L 98/(91) (1897–1899; ed. Denis Herlin) [24:35]
I. Nuages [7:20]
II. Fêtes [6:06]
III. Sirènes [11:07]
Claude Delangle (alto saxophone)
Gulnara Mashurova (harp)
The Philharmonic Chamber Choir of Europe
Singapore Symphony Orchestra/Lan Shui
rec. November 2015 (Rapsodie, Nocturnes) & May 2017 (other works), Esplanade Concert Hall, Singapore
Reviewed as a stereo 24/96 download from eClassical
Pdf booklet included
BIS BIS-2232 SACD [75:37]

Back in 2007, Lan Sui and the Singapore Symphony made quite a splash with their splendid recording of Debussy’s La Mer. That album, Seascapes, was one of my very first SACDs, and such was the musical and technical prowess on display I simply had to make it one of my top picks that year. La Mer was reissued as part of the team’s first all-Debussy release (BIS-1837); the follow-up, featuring the three late ballets Jeux, Khamma and La boîte à joujoux, was particularly well received by Nick Barnard. Now we have this new selection of lollipops, apparently the last in this enterprising project.

Even though Lan Shui’s Debussy is ‘old school’, as opposed to HIPP-inspired, it’s not overly sumptuous; indeed, there’s plenty of muscle and sinew when required – Gigues and Ibéria from Images (Vol. 1) come to mind – and there’s a pleasing transparency to both the playing and the sound right across the series. More important, this conductor has a sure grasp of the Debussian idiom, and that shines through in his seductively shaped performances. (Has the scent of night ever seemed more potent, more palpable, than it does here?) As for the SSO, they’re a fine band, blessed with virtuoso players who makes the most of their solos; collectively, they respond to this music with tremendous commitment and polish. True, the ballets in Vol. 2 face formidable competition from the likes of Ernest Ansermet, yet there’s an irrepressible playfulness to Lan Shui’s Jeux that’s hard to beat. For a very different, more forward-looking take on the piece do try François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles on Harmonia Mundi. Alas, the rest of that album is variable, to say the least. (More on that later.)

Back to Singapore, where Lan Shui and the SSO immediately impress with a Printemps that begins with playing of limpid loveliness; indeed, the whole performance has all the colour and flecks of detail one could wish for, not to mention an unfailingly sensuous line. The aural image has wonderful depth and breadth, too, but then I’d expect nothing less from engineer Hans Kipfer. (Rapsodie and Nocturnes are engineered by Ingo Petry.) Speaking of that rhapsody, Claude Delangle sounds suitably languorous, his alto sax as warm, pure and full-toned as it needs to be. And, thanks to a strong pulse and sense of purpose, Debussy’s reveries never become soporific. (What a gem this is, and how well played, the brass especially; a truly immersive recording, too.) Moving on, the animated and airy Marche écossaise is nicely sprung, the Berceuse héroïque darkly diaphanous without being remotely oppressive.

Any caveats thus far? Non. Harpist Gulnara Mashurova, who I’ve singled out for praise in the past, is at her most lustrous and characterful in the two dances. (How I’d love to hear her in Mahler 4, the child-heaven finale in particular.) As expected, Lan Shui is a thoroughly sympathetic accompanist, his delicate rhythms and subtly shifting dynamics as natural - as intuitive - as you’ll hear anywhere. Those who prefer HIPP-inspired Debussy – from the excellent Jos van Immerseel, say – may yearn for leaner textures and a sharper outlines, but there’s no doubting the sheer beauty of Lan Shui’s unapologetically traditional readings. ‘Nuages’, the first of the Nocturnes, is ample proof of that; similarly, the impeccably built tension of ‘Fêtes’, so crisply articulated, is a reminder that ‘full-fat’ Debussy isn’t so bad after all. As for the ideally placed chorus in ‘Sirènes’, it manages to sound both evocative and ecstatic, a far cry from Roth’s shrill harpies. Jean-Pascal Vachon’s eminently readable liner-notes complete this most desirable package.

A quite splendid conclusion to Lan Shui’s Debussy project; the sonics are a treat, too.

Dan Morgan

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