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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune [9:37]
La Mer [23:08]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Rapsodie espagnole [16:19]
London Symphony Orchestra/François-Xavier Roth
Rec. live, 25 April 2019 (Ravel), 25 January 2018 (Prélude), and 25 & 28 March 2018 (La Mer), Barbican Hall, London, UK
LSO LIVE LSO0821 SACD [49:07]

François-Xavier Roth, Principal Guest Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, has often offered London audiences highly accomplished performances of Debussy and Ravel. Indeed I was present at the concerts at which the items on his latest LSO Live album were recorded. Although two dates are involved in La Mer, and it might be that patching sessions were also used, I do not recall hearing many errors of execution in the Barbican Hall, but rather a remarkable precision in pieces in which that cannot always be taken for granted. In this respect Roth’s approach resembles that of the late Pierre Boulez, and although some collectors might be allergic to Boulez, for me there is no higher praise in this repertoire. The LSO always seem to play very well for François-Xavier Roth, whom it is said they have dubbed “special F-X”.

Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole opens with a spectral Prélude à la nuit, which like many atmospheric pieces – Britten’s “Dawn” in the Four Sea interlude, or Bartok’s night music – has very few notes on the page. But in the case of the Ravel there are plenty of directions in the score essential to the crepuscular mood. The repeated falling four-note phrase that permeates the movement moves from ppp in bar 1 to p in bar 4 and back again, and is perfectly managed by Roth as are several such hairpin dynamics, as if the night is breathing. And he doesn’t get too excited at the gorgeous glissando-led string phrase at fig. 4, but keeps that in scale and mood while still being très expressif as marked. The short Malagueña and sultry Habanera movements dance delightfully in their very different ways, and the final Feria’s raucous climaxes - plenty of notes on the page there – have all the excitement of a riotous Iberian festival.

The Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune is practically François-Xavier Roth’s calling card, and there is no aspect of its subtle shape-shifting form or its sensuous but cool emotional world of which he is not the master. From the fluid opening solo from Principal Flute Gareth Davies through to the score’s exquisitely languorous leave-taking, this is as beguiling a performance as one could wish to hear. There is no sense of routine, even though this is probably the most frequently played item on the programme.

La Mer is a score of formidable complexity, and one which gave Debussy considerable trouble. These “Three Symphonic Sketches” manage to have it all ways. “Sketches” implies visual art, and many pages vividly suggest the sea in its varied moods. But “symphonic” points to the work’s compelling form, and to the French cyclic predilection in a symphony, with related material varied and shared across movements. And ‘orchestration’ is too weak a word for what Debussy achieved here, where timbre becomes a musical element hardly less significant than harmony or rhythm. So it does not play itself, with many switches of dynamic, metre and mood to accommodate, while keeping a sense of flow and continuity. Roth and his fine players observe the many markings, both when the music is kaleidoscopic in effect as in the central Jeux de Vagues (“play of the waves”), and when it broadens into the mighty utterances that close each of the outer movements. (Though like almost everyone else one imagines, they do not observe Debussy’s request for 16 (!) cellos for their divisi section in the first movement). So this is a very fine account, and the sense of it being caught live is palpable, helped by a well-focused and wide-ranging surround sound recording. The Barbican’s dry acoustic is hardly ideal for a work about the sea, but the LSO’s brilliance and Roth’s skill in balancing overcome the lack of bloom.

The two Debussy works have been recorded by Roth before with his period instrument orchestra, Les Siècles, the Prélude on Harmonia Mundi in 2018 (review) and La Mer on Musicales Actes Sud in 2013 (review): our reviewer John Quinn admired both. The interpretations are very similar, although the Prélude from Les Siècles has a touch more urgency at 8:55 against the LSO’s more langorous 9:37, but it is the extra tang of the period band’s colours that might appeal, as well as the main programme of Jeux and the Nocturnes, making the Harmonia Mundi disc a fine complement to this LSO issue for Roth’s admirers. It even adds a bonus DVD of a concert with Jeux and Nocturnes live from the Alhambra in Spain. But this Ravel and Debussy programme from the LSO and Roth is recommended for those in search of a live SACD in this particular repertoire - although fine alternative versions of every piece on the disc are of course legion. The only complaint might be the playing time of less than 50 minutes, when the LSO and Roth have performed several other works of these two masters in recent years that might have been added.

Roy Westbrook

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