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 the 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, which 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 four 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 more 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 in 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 from 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.)
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.