Debussy’s Jeux, etc.

Jeux is known as a puzzle, and there are very few recordings of the work — or performances attempted. I just acquired a copy of Ansermet with the OSR on London’s Treasury Series, 15022. The recordings in my collection otherwise are Martinon from his ORTF cycle, in quadraphonic sound, EMI 37066, and de Sabata on CD with the Accademia de Santa Cecilia, an early RAI mono recording which is absolutely stunning — particularly in the coupled work, the Nocturnes.

Sabata is dramatic and precise, and the mono sound gives the Jeux an appropriately mysterious sound. Sabata is always interesting and I was glad to discover this on the EMI/Testament label some years ago; I have had no luck finding whether it exists on vinyl or even 78. His tempi are relatively quick, which I think is more attuned to the tenor of the piece. The CD sound is exemplary for the era.

For richness, though, Martinon’s 4-channel recording (1974) is unmatched. It is pure sorcery. Slower tempi, but the sounds resonate through each eerie phrase and snap of percussion. I have a virgin vinyl copy, sealed and played only a couple of times. The sense of depth and resonance is among the best stereo, or quadraphonic, discs in my collection. Jeux wanders about a bit as a work, but it is a splendid wandering. Not as abstract as, say, Arnold Bax in his woods and gardens of Fand, but less directional than Debussy in the Nocturnes or Prelude. Here he is letting himself go. Martinon has the measure of this work and simply lets it flow, whereas Sabata tries to pin it down. Martinon is available in various CD iterations.

Ansermet is my latest addition, and as I listen to it now I have the mixed reaction I typically do to his recordings — so valued by audiophiles and collectors. It seems to me a superficial reading, and the sound is opulent…but lacking depth. Not lacking sonic range, to be sure, but depth. It is a flowing rendition, smooth and well directed. But lacking the drama of Sabata or the magic of Martinon. The sound on the orange label STS disc is superb as is to be expected from this series, ever sometimes surpassing their original Blueback first pressings. It’s available on up-to-date CD remaster.

The reason I’ll be keeping this disc is not the Jeux, but it’s pairing, Dukas’s La Peri. I’ve always admired this dramatic work, so rarely performed or recorded. My prior copy is Pierre Boulez, in quadraphonic, on CBS 32401. It is a good recording with excellent quad sound — but here, ironically, it is Ansermet’s opulence which provides the contrast. This is showpiece music, not a musical puzzle like Jeux. Ansermet’s style works for me here.

P.S. I don’t have it in my collection any longer, but Simon Rattle’s version Jeux also receives much critical praise. I recall it falling more into the Ansermet category, without the gusto or careful presentation to make a difficult work succeed. Maybe I should give him a second go; or wait for it with the Berliners, which would be amazing.

About Jonathan Riehl

Jonathan Riehl writes and teaches communications, rhetoric, and American politics. He used to be a Republican. View all posts by Jonathan Riehl

One response to “Debussy’s Jeux, etc.

  • Richard Kaplan

    Jonathan, you’re right about the Ansermet La Peri; gorgeous, and displays far more orchestral colors than Boulez ever dreamed in. But you really need to hear this recording on an FFSS Decca or London, or even on CD; the STS, like most of them, attenuates the high frequencies and tends toward muddiness in the low. They sound good until you’ve heard the original masterings! Cheers, Rich

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