Trois Nocturnes; Première Rhapsodie*; Marche Écossaise sur un theme populaire; Les soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du charbon; La Damoiselle élue
Sophie Bevan (soprano), Anna Stéphany (mezzo-soprano), *Sergio Castelló López (clarinet); Upper Voices from the Hallé Choirs; Hallé Orchestra/Mark Elder
Hallé CD HLL 7552 64:56 mins
This is an album to delight students of Debussy’s work who wish to hear exactly all the ingredients to his orchestration and how he deploys his instruments. Though compiled from four different sessions, Mark Elder’s vision here remains constant: the playing is cool-headed, precise and sonically beautiful with carefully calibrated ensemble, all sympathetically recorded with just enough acoustic not to obscure any detail.
Yet this is truly a case of being faithful to the letter rather than the spirit of the music. There is little or none of that chemistry required not just by Debussy but also many composers at the turn of the 20th century, who expected certain effects to be lovingly burnished, and others to be ever so slightly blurred or approximate: under Elder everything, without exception, is precisely delineated – which largely accounts for the almost total lack of any sense of place or atmosphere that Debussy intends his music to conjure. One is always aware foremost of a performance by a disciplined group of musicians. Elder does not even allow a degree of excitement to spoil the pristine perfection of ‘Fêtes’ in Nocturnes, taken at a steady pace as reliable as a ticking grandfather clock’s.
Elder’s sturdy and well-defined way with this music offers its own insights: one may hear how Debussy’s Marche écossaise took inspiration from Balakirev’s tone poem Tamara, and what precisely Vaughan Williams took from Debussy’s soundworld. But something essential is missing: to misquote the French Marshal Pierre Bosquet, ‘C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas Debussy’.