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Debussy Strauss HDTT2976

Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
La mer (1905)
Richard Strauss (1864-1949)
Don Juan, Op. 20c (1888)
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Fritz Reiner
rec. 1960 (Strauss), 1961 (Debussy)

These are famous recordings of remarkable depth and clarity for their era. I say “for their era” yet in HDTT’s remastering from the original tapes they come up with such freshness that apart from the faintest suggestion of hiss – more ambient noise than anything – they are comparable with anything digital. Sometimes something magical occurs in the recording studio and this was one of those occasions; Reiner declared La mer to be “perfect” and had to be persuaded to correct just one horn blip; otherwise, this was the one and only take. I have seen elsewhere a mild reservation regarding a lack of “Mediterranean warmth” about it, but given that a) Debussy did not specify which sea(s) he was evoking and at different times in his life spent time near both the Med and the Atlantic - indeed, it was composed while he was staying in a hotel in Eastbourne, on the English coast - and b) to my ear there is nothing very Mediterranean about this sound picture - if anything, it is more redolent of grander, wilder, more “oceanic” vistas - I cannot see that as a flaw. It is true that the very clarity of the recording and the playing of the CSO is almost startling but every detail of Debussy’s miraculous orchestration emerges thereby. Every soloist sound like a virtuoso and the variety of timbres and colours from the instrumentalists is remarkable.

Reiner takes the first movement, “De L'aube Ó midi sur la mer” (From dawn till noon on the sea), slower than most interpreters but at no point does it drag. It is the most reflective and dreamily atmospheric of the three sections and Reiner follows the composer’s instructions by building it slowly. “Jeu de vagues” (Play of the waves) is positively coruscating and as light as thistledown, while the finale “Dialogue du vent et de la mer” (Dialogue between the wind and the waves) makes a suitably tumultuous conclusion, with the celebrated Chicago brass running riot.

This does not necessarily eclipse other famous versions – I still want to hear Karajan’s gloriously sonorous, somewhat loftier, mistier account and won’t be jettisoning Giulini’s elegant, patrician version with the Philharmonia – but it is as fine as any other I know.

The same is true of this Don Juan, which was made in much better sound than his first recording in 1954. The depth of the bass sound is especially striking but he balancing of all the registers is ideal, once again showing of virtuosity of the orchestra. Reiner’s contrasting tempi for the initial bravura section and the ensuing love music are daringly extreme but he keeps it together; only Karajan generates the same combination of swashbuckling Úlan and romantic ardour. The beauty of the woodwind solos constantly beguiles the ear and the monitory horns could not be more sonorous and homogeneous.

I made comparison with the Don Juan in my Sony box-set of Reiner’s collected Strauss, and satisfactory as that is, this HDTT transfer has the edge.

Ralph Moore

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