Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Debussy: La Mer, Nocturnes, Etc

This disc received 1996 Grammy nominations for "Best Classical Album" and "Best Orchestral Performance."

If you felt that there were icebergs and penguins in Boulez's 1967 La mer (CBS, 11/87—nla), was the pervasive chilliness intended by Boulez, or the result of the CBS sound—glittering, hard, selectively miked and bass-light? Mainly the latter, I suspect. The DG is as warm and full as you could wish, marginally more recessed than the first issue in this new series (Images, etc., 9/92), with perhaps a little added reverberation (Cleveland's Masonic Auditorium sounding more like Boston's Symphony Hall). 

The endings of both outer movements of La mer bring sound of astonishing power and focus, with a spectacular gong (Boulez takes the cornet triplets in the finale's last pages—like Munch and Tortelier—but does not reinstate the deleted fanfares from four after fig. 59).

Only the harps are less than ideally clear, and one could criticize isolated moments of balance: for example, the four horns in La mer's first movement make a crescendo from mf (at 3'02) but are dwarfed in scale by the solo violin (marked pp) that enters 13 seconds later.

It is characteristic that dawn in Boulez's La mer breaks with a clear distinction made between the differing rhythm of the divided cellos in the third and fourth bars (without obviously violating the pp markings); a point at which Karajan's cellos, in his 1964 mid-price recording, remain shrouded in mist, though Karajan's basses establish greater depth, and his tempo suggests more movement. No one, I would submit, is the equal of Karajan in 1964 as a colourist in this score, although few have had the Berlin Philharmonic's rich and varied palette to deploy on it. And very few are Karajan's equal in relating Debussy's detailed tempo indications. Boulez's speed for Jeux de vagues was, and still is, too leisurely by half, and the orchestra seems to be here—untypically—on auto-pilot. At this basic tempo, and with this orchestra, Debussy's animatos in the movement's first half positively invite risking. No such luck! Previous generations such as Coppola, Ansermet, Monteux, Munch, Reiner and Karajan would risk the high-speed, blink-and-you-miss-it dash and splash; many of today's conductors (Dutoit and Haitink excepted) play safe. Boulez does at least forge ahead in the middle of the second half's gathering wave (from 5'10)—where Solti in his remake was disappointingly steady—but it is too late.

For the remaining 56 minutes of music-making on this disc, I have nothing but praise. Boulez conducts Jeux with obvious authority and passionate urgency, exposing and (more importantly) giving expression to features such as the doux divided cellos from six before fig. 8 (1'41), but without lingering unduly in its moments of fantasy and sophisticated sensuality (cf. Rattle). In the clarinet Rapsodie and Nocturnes there is a quite fabulous subtlety and variety of pace, texture and colour. From the latter, Nuages is more mobile than is common, while its second half's un peu anime is actually, and very effectively, slower; and Fetes is rather more gentle than usual (with a perfectly judged distance for the trumpets at the start of the central procession). Boulez greatly varies the vowels from phrase to phrase in the chorus's vocalise in Sirenes, sometimes within a phrase, from bouche fermee to ooo and aaa, in a manner that is both haunting and hypnotic, and which is entirely consistent with the music's dynamic. Fortunately, the Cleveland ladies' pitching is beyond criticism. There is also a grace and poise about this singing and playing that is missing from the higher-powered Solti. The 20-odd years of Boulez's experience with the work show, too, in his now more moderate slowings and suspensions.

Though Gervase de Peyer's clarinet remains treasurable in the older CBS recording of the Rapsodie (4/71—nla), Franklin Cohen is more than a match. In every other department—interpretation, orchestral playing and recording—Boulez's first CBS Debussy recordings are completely outclassed. --Gramophone Magazine

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