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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. 2018/19, BBC Studio HQ9, Salford; Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, UK
HALLÉ CDHLL7554 [60:44]

Earlier this year, I reviewed the third disc in Sir Mark Elder’s Debussy series with the Hallé . Shortly after appraising that excellent disc I learned that a recording of Images was ‘in the can’ and now, here it is.

Roger Nichols reminds us in his excellent booklet essay that the composition of this orchestral triptych occupied Debussy for seven years. Indeed, Mr Nichols uses the term “wrestled with” to describe the compositional process. How many people, listening without the benefit of that information, would guess at such a difficult gestation I wonder; the music seems to flow so effortlessly and inventively. That, of course, is a tribute to Debussy’s genius – art concealing struggle, one might say – and in a successful performance it’s a tribute too to the skill of conductor and orchestra. I’m in no doubt that this is a very successful account of Images. I felt drawn in right at the start of Gigues by the lovely, subtle playing of the introduction. As the performance unfolded, I was greatly impressed by the clarity that Elder and his players achieve; this ensures that all the different textural strands of Debussy’s music make their mark in a very natural way. I admired also the vitality in the rhythms – the frequent references to ‘The Keel Row’ all have a spring in the step.

Ibéria receives a fine performance. In ‘Par les rues et par les chemins’ the vibrant primary orchestral colours and lively rhythms are all relished. Roger Nichols remarks that the opening of this piece “has an impact and stridency new in Debussy’s music”. That certainly comes across here and, indeed, Elder sustains the impact of the music throughout in an exciting performance. The sultry nocturnal ambience of ‘Les parfums de la nuit’ is expertly judged. I did wonder momentarily if the recording were not a little too ‘present’ for such a magically atmospheric score. However, I performed a “reality check” by reminding myself of the recording by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Stéphane Denève (review). That’s a performance and recording which I much admire and I was reassured to find that the Hallé recording is no more ‘present’ than the excellent Chandos sound. I enjoyed Mark Elder’s account of this movement very much, not least for the way in which he ensures that details such as the quiet violin parts in the background just register with the listener in the correct proportion. ‘Le matin d’un jour de fête’ is packed with gaiety and colour, just as it should be. The concluding Rondes de printemps is another success. The performance is full of life and energy and once again I was struck by the perceptive way in which Elder demonstrates care for detail, yet always within the concept of Debussy’s ‘big picture’. In sum, this is a super account of Images.
The composer Colin Matthews has created a series of highly effective orchestrations of piano pieces by Debussy, many of which Elder and the Hallé have recorded. Hitherto, Matthews has orchestrated all of the Préludes for piano and I’ve greatly enjoyed them (review ~ review). The disc which I reviewed last February also included a Matthews orchestration, this time of the late miniature Les Soirs Illuminés par L’Ardeur du Charbon. This latest CD brings us the premiere recording of Et la lune descend sur la temple qui fut, which is from Book II of the Images for piano, composed in 1907. In fact, we learn from the booklet that Matthews has orchestrated all six of the pieces which constitute the two books of Images; this is the first of them to achieve a recording. With this orchestration, Colin Matthews confirms yet again that he has as acute an ear for Debussy’s soundworld as does Mark Elder. This is a sensitive and atmospheric re-imagining of the original piano piece. As I’ve found with Matthews’ previous such essays, he remains faithful to the original spirit of the music and subtly enhances it. Et la lune descend sur la temple qui fut is an evocative nocturnal piece and Matthews clothes the music in suitably pastel timbres. The Hallé’s collective finesse does the rest. The results are lovely.

La plus que lente presents a piano piece in orchestral dress but this time the scoring is by Debussy himself. He scored his arrangement for flute, clarinet, strings and piano with the unusual addition of cimbalom. The cimbalom, which makes its presence felt very early on, adds a degree of piquancy to the scoring. The effect is almost gawky, which I’m sure is what Debussy intended and the novel timbre of the cimbalom, together with irregular metres, produces a somewhat unsettled but intriguing effect.

To conclude, we hear one of Debussy’s most celebrated orchestral scores: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. I’m glad that flautist Katherine Baker is credited because she plays the crucial flute part marvellously. Much of her playing is sensual and sinuous but she’s equally impressive in the more acrobatic passages. The performance as a whole is gorgeous. Once again, Elder and his orchestra bring out all the nuances in the music and when greater ardour is required, they deliver the goods. This is a glowing performance.

I enjoyed this disc very much indeed. Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé have previously given us notable series of recordings of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Sibelius. Their exploration of Debussy on disc has been no less distinguished and this latest instalment is fully up to the standard of its predecessors. I think that they have now committed all of the French master’s significant orchestral scores to disc so it’s possible that this fourth CD will be the last in the series. I hope, though, that there might be the opportunity for them to commit to disc the remainder of Colin Matthews’ orchestrations of the piano Images.
Engineer Steve Portnoi has recorded the performances in very satisfying sound which is detailed without being analytical. Roger Nichols’ notes are predictably expert.

John Quinn

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