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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Trois Nocturnes (1897-99) [26:05]
Première rapsodie, for clarinet and orchestra (1910) [8:04]
Marche Écossaise (1911) [6:42]
Les soirs illuminés par l'ardeur du charbon (2017) (orch. Colin Matthews) [2:34]
La Damoiselle élue (1888) [21:05]
Sergio Castelló López (clarinet); Sophie Bevan (soprano); Anna Stéphany (mezzo-soprano)
Upper Voices from the The Hallé Youth Choir and The Hallé Choir
Hallé Orchestra/Mark Elder
rec. 2018/19, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester; BBC Studio HQ9, Salford, UK
Text for La Damoiselle élue not included
HALLÉ CDHLL7552 [64:56]

Our teenage offspring came home from college a couple of weeks ago and asked me completely out of the blue “what is your view of Debussy?” Over fifteen years or so of conscious experience they have never displayed even the vaguest interest in classical music and before I responded I pressed them for the motivation behind their question. They admitted to liking Nuages from the Nocturnes and revealed that this was one of the set pieces on their ‘A’ Level music syllabus. (My teenager is a fine singer, plays the ukulele and seems to be most interested in Japanese anime soundtracks). I told her that Debussy was one of my gods, and that they were fortunate to be studying a specification whereby some enlightened soul had demonstrated the good sense to select one of the Nocturnes as a set piece. A day later this superb disc arrived.

What on earth has Sir Mark Elder done with the Hallé in the last fifteen years or so? The Debussy discs he has led with Manchester’s finest have been consistently exceptional. And just like their 2007 recording of La Mer (welcomed with unfettered enthusiasm by John Quinn in his review), to my mind these Nocturnes go straight to the top of the pile. It’s a reading that oozes quality, from the extraordinary refinement and precision of the Hallé’s playing (not to mention the fervent, focused singing of the upper voices of both Hallé choirs in Sirènes) to Elder’s immaculate pacing of each of the three panels; most obviously for the audiophile it is palpable in Steve Portnoi’s magnificent live recording (from a concert given in the Bridgewater Hall in April 2019). The sound his team have realised here projects tangibly three-dimensional depth and detail, and where necessary a bite that quite belies the haze often suggested by Debussy’s scoring (and often compromises even the best recorded accounts). Elder vividly conveys the tang of still, twilit air and the stately yet unhurried motion of the clouds in Nuages, their serenity meltingly highlighted by Thomas Davey’s wonderfully languid cor anglais. The rapid processional at the heart of Fêtes approaches and fades with singular freshness and vivacity, its keening muted trumpets recorded in such a way as to create a convincing impression of distance. Elder’s conception of Sirènes is truly affecting, the dynamics of the whole carefully yet naturally tiered, the textures of the voices and instruments blended sublimely – as much a tribute to the engineers as to the performers. This account of the Nocturnes would now be my clear first choice, its lucidity and sheer freshness placing it ahead of the fine accounts by Stéphane Denève and the RSNO on Chandos or Claudio Abbado’s widely admired second reading for DG with the Berliners.

Another attraction of the new issue is the imaginative programming, which gives listeners a welcome opportunity to re-assess some lesser-known corners of Debussy’s rather meagre orchestral oeuvre. I must admit I have never taken to the Première rapsodie, the clarinet test piece Debussy rather dutifully produced for the Paris Conservatoire examinations in 1910. It has always seemed rather mechanical and workaday – it tends to ‘sound’ like a test piece which is why I suspect it has been rather infrequently recorded. Not here though; Sergio Castelló López invests the work with more expressive intention than I would have previously thought possible. Together with Elder, he has also managed to apply a sense of coherence to a work which tends to sound diffuse and over-episodic. While the Rapsodie certainly isn’t a masterpiece, this characterisation at least affords it an attractiveness and credibility that hitherto hasn’t registered with my ears, at least.

The Hallé then perform a couple of brief orchestral rarities. The Marche Écossaise was originally conceived for piano duet, and Elder milks Debussy’s own orchestration for all its worth in a vibrant and colourful account that more than matches Haitink’s famous old Concertgebuow recording for Philips. The brassy outbursts at its conclusion seem more than ever to presage the Gershwin of Rhapsody in Blue and the Piano Concerto in F. And then there’s something even more interesting; an atmospheric new arrangement by Colin Matthews of a little piano piece that only turned up in 2001. Debussy produced Les soirs illuminés par l'ardeur du charbon (‘Evenings illuminated by the burning of coal’) during the hard winter of early 1917, and presented the manuscript as a gift to his hard-pressed local coal merchant who had managed to acquire a bag against the odds for the needy composer. Matthews’ lean orchestration suggests a real ‘pièce froide’, hardly surprising in the physically and psychologically straitened circumstances Debussy found himself in his final year. The opening phrase is a melancholy subversion of the first bars of Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir from Book 1 of the Préludes; Roger Nichols’ characteristically erudite notes remind us that ghostly fragments of Feux d’artifice can also be detected but these are truly burnt out. Elder’s account of this recently restored miniature is perfectly bleak and affecting.

The disc ends with a welcome revival of Debussy’s early cantata La Damoiselle élue (after Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s renowned pre-Raphaelite poem), a product of the Italian sojourn he experienced following his 1884 Prix de Rome success. It’s a work that’s fared surprisingly well on disc given its somewhat lukewarm reputation (and the impracticalities of its performance requirements – two female solo voices, plus childrens’ and adult choirs with orchestra). Famous accounts involving the likes of Maria Ewing (with the LSO and Abbado on DG), Montserrat Caballé (with the Symphonica of London under Wyn Morris on Collins Classics) and Dawn Upshaw (the LAPO under Salonen on Sony) have been laid down over the years, but as far as I can make out this is its first recording for some time. Nor does it disappoint - Elder certainly brings out the gentle, shimmering eroticism at its heart, and perhaps pushes its more obvious Wagnerisms into the background than on those older, rival accounts. Sophie Bevan makes a delightfully radiant soprano, but once again it is the focused yet glowing choral work of the Hallé choirs which most deeply touches both heart and head. Again, it is hard to imagine a more luxuriant recording. The inclusion of this early cantata in this context seems unexpectedly apposite. The absence of the text from the booklet is a tiny hindrance given its wide availability online.

As far as I can make out, then, this is the fourth disc in Elder’s Debussy series with his resurgent Hallé; the major remaining absentee appears to be the orchestral Images and one certainly hopes that that lovely work will materialise in due course. For now I urge those readers who are drawn to the Nocturnes in particular (and to this repertoire in general) to sample the myriad delights of this splendid issue.

Richard Hanlon

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