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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Images [37:34]
Et la lune descend sur la temple qui fut [6:14]
(orch. Colin Matthews)
La plus que lente [5:57]
Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune [10:44]
Hallé/Sir Mark Elder
rec. 2018/2019, BBC Studio HQ9, Salford; Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, UK
HALLÉ CDHLL7554 [60:44]

The great Manchester-based orchestra and its conductor Mark Elder have now built up a formidable catalogue of outstanding recordings. One of the composers who has featured prominently is Claude Debussy, and last year’s issue of the Nocturnes and La Damoiselle Élue was rightly greeted with great enthusiasm. That CD contained an orchestration by Colin Matthews (another composer who has been well served by these performers) of a Debussy piano piece, Les soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du charbon. This new recording has again a Matthews arrangement, this time of Et la lune descend sur la temple qui fut, one of Debussy’s most original and striking piano pieces. Matthews is a skilled and sensitive orchestrator who really knows his Debussy, and the work sounds completely convincing in its new garb.

The playing of this orchestra seems to get better with each succeeding CD, something evident from the very beginning of Images. (Just to clarify – these orchestral Images are a completely separate entity from the two sets of Images for piano. That can cause some confusion, as can the fact that the middle one of these three Images – Ibéria - is itself sub-divided into three separate sections.) The first movement, Gigues, with its curious reference to the English folk-song The Keel Row, is a magical opening to the disc. A flute softly hints at the folk-song, against a typically misty background. Then Debussy brings in a keening melody played by the oboe d’amore. This is essentially a Baroque instrument, much loved by Bach, though this is the only time Debussy used it. Why? Well, pitch-wise, the d’amore is between the oboe and the cor anglais. I wonder if one of the oboists in the orchestra who gave the premiere (the Orchestre Colonne) possessed such an instrument and played it to Debussy? It’s possible, and there’s no question that its plaintive tone is perfect – throatier than the oboe, yet not as rich as the cor anglais. The whole of Gigues is a delight, and it is played superbly here.

Ibéria is not synonymous with Spain; the word, of course, encompasses the whole peninsula, including Portugal. The irony is that Debussy, as far as is known, spent in all just one day in Spain! And, again as far as is known, he never visited Portugal at all. But the Spanish composer Manuel de Falla pointed out that, despite this fact, Debussy perfectly captured the spirit, sound and ‘feel’ of Spain, not only in this work but in the many others which evoke aspects of the country.

The first section, Par les rues et par les chemins, is the only track on this disc that I wasn’t completely convinced by. Elder’s tempo is on the slow side, and well below both Debussy’ clearly indicated ‘très vite’ - very quick - and the precise metronome mark of quaver = 176 to the minute. That is really quick, and the slower tempo means the performance misses a little of the urgency and restlessness of the music.

However, the other two sections are captured perfectly; Les parfums de la nuit, an almost uncomfortably intense evocation of the sub-tropical night, and Le matin d’un jour de fête, busy and full of fun.

The final movement, Rondes de Printemps, is probably both the most subtle, and the most difficult to bring off. But Elder has a wonderful grasp of how to pace this music, and how to draw out all the colours of this marvellous score. He is helped, all the way through the disc, but a very fine recording, which manages to sound natural, but also allows all the teeming detail to register as it should.

Images is followed by three smaller-scale works. Et la lune descend…(difficult to translate, but usually given as ‘And the moon descends over the temple that was’) is one of the Images for piano, and is a strange, gnomic piece showing the influence of Indonesian music. Matthews’ deft instrumentation made me realise how much Debussy meant to a composer such as Gustav Holst, not only in The Planets, but even more clearly in Egdon Heath. Elder and his players perfectly capture the other-worldly character of the shifting, indefinable harmonies.

La plus que lente is a slow and sensuous waltz, with more than a touch of affectionate parody. Though originally for piano, Debussy orchestrated it himself, with the curious inclusion of a cimbalom – that strung folk instrument that makes an occasional appearance in orchestral music, e.g. Kodály’s Háry János. I’d never heard this version of the piece before, and it is great to have it here. The Hallé perform it with great style, capturing the languid rubato to great effect.

And the disc is completed by what is perhaps Debussy’s greatest masterpiece, the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. This exquisite yet epoch-making work benefits from the really wonderful flute playing of Katherine Baker, the orchestra’s principal flautist. Indeed, all the wind playing is of the highest possible standard – the bassoon of Emily Hultmark, the horn playing of Laurence Rogers and his section, and the oboe of Stéphanie Rancourt. I don’t know a better recording of the work, though Claudio Abbado’s with the Berlin Philharmonic on DG, in which Emmanuel Pahud weaves his magic, takes some beating.

Another great disc from Elder and the Hallé.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

Previous review: John Quinn ~ Nick Barnard

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