Monthly Archives: June 2015

La Mer

One of the most famous Impressionist works, Debussy’s La Mer has been recorded countless ties by a plethora of artists; I’m surveying a few of the many that I have in my collection — some much well known than others. First on many critics’ lists is 100_0364the 1964 RCA record from Munch and the Bostonians, one of the most highly sought after Living Stereo issues. I’ve heard several copies, and my usual skepticism about the LSC sound has proved true again; still can’t see what all the fuss is about. Hence my surprise when I found a clean copy of the reissue on the Victrola label, the first plum label, heavy vinyl with groove. I don’t know if they did anything to clean up the mix inbetween the initial LSC issue and this one (VICS-1041) but it sure sounds better to my ears. The strings are are crisp and clear, but lacking the lush sweep of Karajan and the Berliners, in their recording from almost the same exact time (1963). Munch’s pacing is superb, rubatos subtle enough so as to be hardly to be noticeable. The sonic range is outstanding, and the quiet moments, so elemental to this work, are delicate and clear. The acoustic, though amazingly clear and unclouded, still fails to deliver the voluptuousness of the Berliners. This deserves its status as a reference performance, with nothing really to fault; yet it is still somewhat clinical. There’s not as much personality here as I like in works of this period; it’s almost too perfect.

The VICS issue has less glamourous cover art, but as I said, better sonics to my mind. There have been other reissues and incarnations on CD including multichannel SuperAudio, which I experimented with for a while, but found I not only preferred straight vinyl, but the surround effect on (gasp) 8 track tape. Many of the early Living stereos were indeed recorded on multichannel tape — this was when they were truly figuring out how stereo was going to work — and many of the LSC’s were issued in the 1970s as quads. I don’t think La Mer ever was, so no comparison to be made. There are quad versions of La Mer, a couple of which I have in my collection and discuss below.

As Munch moves through the three movements, not much changes in terms of the pacing, it’s sure and steady, but the finale third movement is more workmanlike than exultory, not anything close to the mystical voyage we get from Karajan (who is known to have been somewhat obsessed with the work and recorded it at least four times I know of (Philharmonia, and thrice with the BPO). I had the Philharmonia on CD years ago, and regrettably didn’t save it on my iTunes when I ditched CDs for good, and am looking for a vinyl copy.

Karajan’s 1964 version is also critically acclaimed, even among his detractors, both for the interpretation and the stunning sonics, which result from the Jesus-Christus Kirche in Berlin — the effect is wholly different from Boston’s famed acoustics, 100_0365which are indeed nothing short of astounding. But the open resonance of the church setting produces a completely different textual feel for this work (and the many others the BPO recorded here before the Philharmonie was finished and became the venue of choice). From the very first bars the ebb and flow of the strings is far more homogenous — that notorious word that HvK’s foes toss around constantly — but when trying for the desired effect of a seascape it is not only appropriate but stunningly evocative. The rising and falling crescendos truly make one “feel” the oceanic currents. I’m paraphrasing from something I’m quite sure I read in one of Robert Layton’s books on Karajan that this work was not “about the sea,” but “was the sea.” I’m lucky to have found — after much trial and error — a pristine first issue of the vinyl with no surface noise at all, hersteller label etc. (138-923) which can easily be found in various iterations on CD.

Unlike Munch, Karajan fluctuates tempi noticeably and intentionally, forcing the listener to almost feel seasick (or undertow, at least) by the third movement, the lower and upper registers undulating in turn, constantly driving to the tumultuous finale. To paraphrase Layton again (can’t say exactly where), this recording shows that every now and again Karajan still felt comfortable unleashing the old Furtwängler-esque frenzy the band was used to and capable of — the comparison I’m making with Layton is how he described the final bars of the 1978 Beethoven 9th, which is, like the end of La Mer here, totally unforgettable in its urgency and ecstasy (youtube clip below of the third movement.)

Almost 15 years later Karajan returned to the work after the advent of quadraphonic sound, and produced a second rendition of the work which similarly meets with almost universal critical acclaim. The sonics here, now in the Philharmonie, are no less effective, though the 4-channel effect renders something different yet again. MFSL has this one on their list, though in 2-channel only. I don’t have a copy, but it’s on my list. I’m using the standard 1977 EMI/Angel issue (37438), and unfortunately when EMI put out its limited run of 45rpms from this era, they included the Bolero from this album but not La Mer. On CD one finds innumerable versions, again including SACD which I can’t speak to.

The pacing of the 1977 record is noticeably slower than of the rocky waters heard in the classic version, but the effect no less evocative; if I were to get metaphorical we’re taking a swim and drifting now rather than navigating through the waves. The 100_0369four channel effect is very effective; I don’t know how the DGG tonmeisters set things up, but one hears the violins and winds quite clearly apart from the deeper strings and percussion sections in the back, creating the unique quad effect of sitting discretely in the middle of things rather than just having them envelop you overall as is the result of the synthesized effect (which is impressive) that my old Sansui receiver can produce with some stereo records, including the 1963 La Mer. The homogenized “Karajan Sound” is now more evolved in this later record; though not to the deleterious effect of maestro’s final 1985 rendition which was primarily recorded for his Unitel video concerts, now available from Sony. One noticeable effect on the quad record, even more so than in 1963, is the truly stunning piannisimos achieved by the Orchestra for sustained passages, particularly in the third movement. The sonic range is nothing short of stunning and the crescendos the score affords produce a truly cinematic effect that is wholly different from either the earlier Karajan record or, certainly, the straight-ahead Munch version.

The second quad record I have is from Martinon’s complete survey with the French National Radio Orchestra, this being Album 4 (370670) on Angel. I’ve heard the German pressed versions, from the full box set, and find the four channel effect far 100_0372more effective on the American version. Martinon is, characteristically, more lyrical in his overall approach, not as precise as Munch or as controlling as Karajan. The result is a looser feel, more flowing. Tempi vary constantly, but in an entirely comfortable way, with the overall effect being a delight of sound rather than a particular evocation as with a traditional tone-poem. There is a glowing happiness to the music making that distinguishes this reading, and Martinon’s style in general, in his conducting of French works in particular. Here, where Karajan’s undertows can be genuinely menacing, Martinon’s tides are glistening splendidly in the Mediterranean sun (which was, after all, where the composer sat while writing these lines).

I conclude with some lesser known records in my collection, first with a very early stereo record (1957) from Manuel Rosenthal and the Orchestre du Theatre National de L’Opera on Vega (10.137). The performance is something of a blend of Munch’s straight delineation and Martinon’s shimmering, warm, and bright (to borrow a phrase). There are magical moments 100_0374in this performance rather than overall effects — not surprising from a band used to performing opera accompaniments. In this sense the work is presented more as a poem, with certain phrases and lines consciously lifter out, standing apart and on their own, pauses emphasized more, and separations allowed to linger with a delicacy I’ve not heard in any other rendering. A very memorable performance for some very different reasons than any of the more famous records discussed above. On CD, apparently, most or all of Rosenthal’s early stereo Debussy has been remastered on SACD by the small Praga label. It’s worth noting that La Mer on vinyl was often paired with the Nocturnes (the Martinon does this but Karajan does not, in either case — he never recorded the work). For what it’s worth, Rosenthal’s flip side has one of the most beguiling versions of Nuages I’ve ever encountered, and I hunted this record down initially for that reason after hearing the recording in the superb (contemporary) French film Red Lights. One wonders if it was purely by accident — or by plan — that the sound producers chose this 1957 recording for the soundtrack in a film made 47 years later. Goodness knows they had other options!

Also with Rosenthal’s reading one can’t help but sense an air of discovery, as with many of these first generation stereo records, in which one can’t help but feel the musicians had to feel they were playing these popular works for the first time.

Of theater digital versions available on vinyl, only one is on my shelf, and it’s a fairly obscure (and hard to find) performance 100_0376from Geoffrey Simon (Cala 1001), which more than anything else is notable for its kaleidoscopic color. The conducting is, like Munch, fairly straight-ahead, but what lingers is a magical richness. Again here it was the Nocturnes that drew me to these performances (Cala 1002) but Simon’s abbreviated Debussy survey is a spectral delight. I initially had these on CD, still available. Tempi are quicker, and this version is more of a showpiece per se. What one might imagine as a modern-day Stokowski. (A Stokowski in his prime, to be clear — his later Phase 4/London LSO dates from his Indian Summer where much of the old magic was gone.)

There are others — Previn’s LSO and Haitink’s Concertgebouw, for example — neither of which make much of impression, and on CD we find them not surprisingly on budget discs only.

Lastly is my one idiosyncratic favorite, where I stand very much alone against the critics, who by all accounts have panned Victor de Sabata’s 1948 Debussy recordings with the Santa Cecilia (Rome) Orchestra, of which La Mer went unpublished until EMI’s Testament CD label, video below. Listen for yourself. Critics pretty much universally view the Nocturnes (on the same disc) as erratic and disorganized, but for me it is a totally unique juggernaut of the senses. Like father, like son, the Kleibers have a way of making music we all know entirely their own.

Fauré’s Violin Sonatas

Fauré was not the most prolific of composers but his music is of the highest caliber, particular the intimate chamber works; delicate and sensual in the iconic Gallic style of the time, with both memorable shorter melodies (the Romances sans Paroles are under appreciated pianistic gems on par with anything from Brahms or even Schubert); Dolly and the Masques et Bergamasques are pure joy; on the other handthe Requiem is an angelic sine qua non, an antidote to the gloom foretold in many others of the genre, most infamously in the words of a contemporary British critic who disdained the pieces for being a “lullaby of death.” As a student of Saint-Saëns and precursor to Ravel and the Impressionists, Fauré bridged styles and generations in the most interesting and rewarding ways — conservative in form, to some sensibilities, yet very free and modern stylistically.

Here I consider four of the handful of records of his two Violin Sonatas, which present both exemplars of these 100_9973characteristics and variety in their performances ranging from the earlier versions by Zino Francescatti and Robert Casadesus (Columbia 5049, rec. 1953, available on CD from Sony). On my 6-eye copy the mono sound is resilient and pristine, with the violinist’s distinctive precision gliding along with little romantic dramatism. The tunefulness dominates rather than the musicians’ personalities, and the effect is pure delight in the first Sonata, written by a young man (aged 31) still under the sway of his mentor Saint-Saëns, who very much approved. The Sonata No. 2, written 40 years later, still possesses the melodic qualities of the first but is less of a token of the flourishes of the Parisian Belle Epoque than of more equivocal cultural, chaotic environment of 1917; “autumnal” to borrow a rather overused musicological term. Casadesus is an equal in these performances, driving the music as much as the soloist he accompanies. Both men were proficient in a wide range of repertoire, and often performed together; this record is in a sense their perfect collaboration.

It’s no surprise (and also somewhat regrettable) that Fauré’s music is mostly favored by his countrymen. The first record was made by Thibaud and Cortot in 1932. Similarities in pacing and style are very evident, and the partnership dynamic with Cortot is noticeable, Francescatti’s leaner, more crystalline tone deliver a different feel overall, however — despite the obviously expanded dynamic range. One can find the vinyl on the old HMV/COLH LP series and on CD from EMI. A presumably 78rpm transfer of the first Cortot 1st movement from the Sonata No. 1 is on YouTube here:

Probably the record held in highest esteem is that from Arthur Grumiaux and Paul Crossley on Philips (9500-534, rec. 1978), Grumiauxwhich features the unmatchable technique and drama of Grumiaux’s instrumentalism in both Sonatas, with unmatched sonics from the height of the late analogue era. (The YouTube clip below concludes with his recording of the Franck sonata with Sebok as accompanist.)

A fuller tone and a more Romantic style (do I detect occasional double-stops?) position Grumiaux into revealing counterpoint with Francescatti, detracting nothing from either. Crossly is also more of an accompanist here than an equal partner in the performance. Available on CD in two versions, this first from Philips and a second from London — clearly some kind of cross-liscence from Polygram, here, though I can’t vouch for the sound on either.

A later rendition comes from the accomplished French violinist Pascal Amoyal with Anne Queffélec on Erato (71195, rec. 1979). The tone here is overall more subdued, more Brahmsian — not dark, to be sure — but less ebullient. An illuminating contrast

worth considering alongside the above mentioned discs. Amoyal recorded the works again with another master of French pianism, Pascal Rogé for London/Decca in the 1990s (Rogé’s solo Fauré album is a must-have). Likewise, Amoyal’s 1992 Harmonia Mundi CD of the Brahms Sonatas, with Pascal Devoyon, is among the finest on record, adapting the French sensibility to Brahms rather than the other way round. The Erato Amoyal has not been reissued on CD.

Lastly I mention the only more modern, CD-version of the Sonatas I favor on par with these vinyl records, from the Korean Dong-Suk Kang also accompanied by Pascal DevoyonKim on Naxos. From the same CD, below is a clip of Kang performing Fauré’s Romance for Violin and Piano, a good example of the tone/style I’m referring to (can’t seem to find the Sonatas for free on the web).

Kang has won recognition for recordings of works by Elgar, Sibelius, and Grieg and his approach reminds me most of the Elgar Violin Sonata in its most robust performances from Nigel Kennedy (Chandos ABRD-1099, and CD) and as well as Maxim Vengerov on Teldec.

By way of comparison, here is the first movement from Kennedy’s Elgar Violin Sonata.

Kang’s Naxos acoustics are the most open and spatial of all the recordings sampled here, and there is nothing to apologize for with the digital sonics. Kang is perhaps the robust of all soloists here, and Devoyon is more animated than he was with Amoyal; he too is a highly accomplished in the French repertoire of this era with many fine records (the Fauré cello sonatas with Isserlis, as well as the Saint-Saëns violin sonatas, and chamber works by Chabrier).

I’m by no means trying to be comprehensive here, just covering what I’ve got on vinyl, and the Kang, from about the time I generally stopped buying CDs.There are a few Fauré Sonata records I’m omitting, including the early Ferras/Barbizet on HMV (can’t abide his vibrato) and Bobesco on vinyl, Mintz on CD, and a very few others who have ventured here.