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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]

Mark Elder's survey with the Hallé of the main orchestral scores of Debussy continues with this disc. Alongside the masterly Images and the revolutionary Prelude à l'après-midi d'un faune we are given Debussy's own orchestration of La plus que lente and finally Colin Matthews' subtly sensitive treatment of Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fuit.

Clearly, the two main works are very well represented in the catalogue with too many excellent versions to list here. However, by any measure, Elder and the Hallé are superbly attuned to Debussy's soundworld and producer Jeremy Hayes and engineer Steve Portnoi have produced a recording of demonstration-worthy detail and clarity. I am not sure that I have ever heard the nuance and detail of these scores laid bare with such sensitive precision. The playing is consistently of the highest order as has become the norm with this orchestra in recent years. Just occasionally, for all the accuracy, energy and bite that Elder does achieve, I did wonder if the music could express more sway and swagger. I missed this most in the closing section of Iberia - Le matin d'un jour de fête. Roger Nichols in his quite brief but good liner references Debussy's wish that this section should "sound as though it's improvised". There is an implied choreographed chaos here that the Hallé are just too exact to achieve. One of the first versions of this work I knew was by Serge Baudo conducting the Czech PO on Supraphon. In comparison to this new disc that recording is technically quite rough in a cavernous acoustic but I do think Baudo captures the earthiness of this (and other Debussy) works that the refinement of the Hallé just - only just - misses. As it happens that same Baudo disc also contains one of my very favourite versions of Prelude à l'après-midi too. Where Elder scores very highly is in the rapt stillness of the central Les parfums de la nuit and also the third part of the whole work - Rondes de printemps. The opening section Gigues is also very fine but again I feel alongside the vigour and finesse others find more wit and warmth. But this is a matter of minor degree and anyone collecting this ongoing series will be delighted anew by the continued excellence of the music-making.

An aspect of this series that I especially enjoyed was Colin Matthews' treatments - orchestrations alone is too limiting a description - of Debussy's Piano Preludes. So much so that I made the two disc collection one of my "Records of the Year" back in 2010. Matthews followed on the complete preludes by orchestrating the two sets of piano Images and Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut is taken from the second set. Nichols points to the influence of gamelan and the oriental aesthetic of stasis. This is a highlight of the disc; exquisitely conceived by Matthews and executed to perfection by the orchestra. Here Debussy's modernist sensibilities are revealed in all their understated brilliance. Nichols' liner note references Pagodes from Estampes as an earlier exploration of Gamelan influences by Debussy. That being the case, as an exercise in orchestration it is interesting to compare Percy Grainger's consciously exotic treatment of Pagodes with Matthews' more nuanced Et la lune... Not that Matthews is seeking to pastiche Debussy's orchestral style, but certainly there is a sense that this arrangement sounds closer to what Debussy might have created. I am not sure that Elder has recorded the other orchestrations of the Images - if not, or I have missed them, this performance makes me keen to hear them. Debussy's own orchestration of La plus que lente receives a warm, almost sensuous performance, with the distinctive timbre of the cimbalon beautifully balanced within the orchestral group.

The disc is completed by that most gentle of revolutionary works; Prelude à l'après-midi d'un faune. Elder gives this a languorous superbly poised performance. Flautist Katherine Baker combines a musing rhythmic freedom with sinuous beauty. Indeed all the solo lines in this performance are played with a perfect combination of expressivity and objectivity. In his liner Roger Nichols reminds us that we can choose to hear this work from either Saint-Säens' perspective of it; "contain[ing] not the slightest musical idea in the true sense of the word" or Boulez's belief that; "modern music was awoken by it". What is undoubtedly true is that it is so familiar now that any listener will struggle to comprehend the radical stream of musical consciousness that it represents. The great success of Elder's interpretation is this sense of unfurling flow, a raptured dream state that remains without equal in Western Classical Music. Again, the catalogue bulges with fine and sensitive versions, but I have to say, this is the equal of any new versions I have heard in recent years - a perfect fusion of conception, execution and recording.

With all of the main Debussy orchestral works committed to disc, I hope there will be a chance for a final disc to include the Matthews' Images plus Printemps and perhaps the ballets and other orchestrations. Among the many fine collaborations on disc between Mark Elder and the excellent Hallé, I have to say, I find these Debussy recordings to be some of the very best of all - another triumphant disc.

Nick Barnard

Previous review: John Quinn

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