Debussy, Britten and Mercure

COMPOSERS: Britten and Mercure,Debussy
LABELS: ATMA Classique
ALBUM TITLE: La Mer
WORKS: Debussy: La mer; Prélude à l’après-midi d’un fauneBritten: Four Sea InterludesMercure: Kaléidoscope
PERFORMER: Orchestre Métropolitain du Grand Montréal/Yannick Nézet-Séguin
CATALOGUE NO: SACD 2549
Mere months after Lan Shui’s enthralling Seascapes programme on the BIS label (reviewed August 2007), here is another superbly engineered SACD version of Debussy’s La mer utilising 5.0 multichannel recording. Though timings are similar, Nézet-Séguin’s traversal of the opening ‘De l’aube à midi sur la mer’ sounds broader, the swell of tide observed more panoramically but with what feels like less attention to local detail.

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The playing of the Montreal orchestra (not to be confused with that city’s Orchestre Symphonique) seems just a little tentative in phrasing, the climactic crash of waves at the movement’s peroration without the startling rush and immediacy of the Shui recording. This slightly careful attitude marginally softens the impact of what is in many ways a very sensitive and admirably nuanced performance.

Like Shui, Nézet-Séguin picks unusual couplings, sensible as it seems to yoke Debussy’s oceanic portrait with the orchestral interludes from Britten’s Peter Grimes. There’s some excellent playing here, particularly from the brass section, ripely blended and eloquently Brucknerian in the opening ‘Dawn’ sequence. Again one senses slightly bland characterisation in ‘Moonlight’, which so easily drags outside the context of the opera.

Kaléidoscope by Pierre Mercure (a Québécois composer) is an interesting filler, a bouncy, ebullient 11 minutes full of glinting colours and spiky Stravinskyisms. For La mer alone, however, Shui’s remains the better SACD option, indeed one of the best performances in any format. Paavo Järvi’s Telarc SACD with his Cincinatti orchestra puts La mer into an all-Debussy context, and is also strongly in the reckoning.

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Terry Blain