Tag Archives: Debussy

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.

Clair de Lune

A respite from the bustle of life…Debussy was able to do this in miniature, nowhere more so than Clair de Lune, the moonlight transpiring through the ivories. A little thing of beauty.

The sine qua non is Gieseking. I’d not be the first to point out the seeming cultural irony in having a German nearly universally recognized as the master of French impressionist piano — but it’s true. Beyond his Ravel, Gieseking’s Debussy manages to be subtle, beautiful, playful, and deep…all somehow simultaneously. My original Angel UK pressing (35067) delivers rich mono sound, and the somewhat slower pace not withstanding, the pressing takes up a good three times the actual vinyl track space of the other two recordings I discuss here. What later vintages would consider “audiophile” pressings were taken for granted in the early days of vinyl, with heavier pressings and deeper grooves and wider margins. It comes through in this recording, delicate, effervescent. Gieseking does not so much play Debussy as he transmits him, and his thoughts, brimming through the Clair de Lune. The mono sound adds to the echo effect which fits the mood of this little gem perfectly. It is a non-dramatic reading, in line with the German school shared very much by Kempff. The music speaks, less so than the interpreter.

Contrast with Ivan Moravec. I had occasion to hear him in rehearsal years ago, literally sneaking up behind him when he was

preparing before a concert at the University of Virginia, my alma mater. He was alternating between the third movement of the Pathetique and Clair de Lune. It was a wonderful contrast. I was stuck on his style from them on; and on his Clair de Lune, on the Connoisseur label (1967 recording, catalog 5752, with wonderful notes by the jazz historian Nat Henthoff). Moravec’s mix of poetry and drama is wonderfully illustrated. He fluctuates more than Gieseking, the moonlight glimmering more through passing clouds, telling more stories than Gieseking withholds. There is more drama in Moravec’s reading, more sadness in the flickers of light, more joy as well. Where Gieseking is sublime to the point of mystery, Moravec is personal and penetrating.

Lastly Zoltán Kocsis, benefitting from voluptuous modern sound; interpretively a kind of meld between Gieseking’s understated mysteriousness and Moravec’s persona. (Philips 412-118, 1983 recording.) Kocsis drives the piece, emphasising first notes in the phrases and drawing bright contrasts in the shimmers of the moonlight. Unlike Gieseking’s Zen Moonlight, Kocsis gives a sparkling portrait, touching in a manner of human consideration of nature, not just nature in its own light, the light of the moon. In this reading we have a decidedly more Romantic approach, more emotive than either Gieseking or Moravec. Completely convincing in its own way, and sonically a wholly different experience. A comparison that comes to mind is Pletnev’s Chopin: How a simple Polish poet can be played out as a Russian Romantic with a sound as big as the heart those great Russians wore (and wear) on their sleeves.

As a postscript, I put on my CD of Tortelier’s Ulster performance of Caplet’s orchestrated version. Popular with Stokowski and others, it is interesting to hear how the attempt is made to amplify the work — it is a translation of sorts, but ultimately unsuccessful in capturing the intimacy of this little piece of moonlight Debussy allows us to coax out of the piano.

This post is for a friend who I hope is seeing the Clair de Lune tonight.

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.