Debussy: Nocturnes; Jeux; La mer; Première rhapsodie

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Debussy
LABELS: DG
WORKS: Nocturnes; Jeux; La mer; Première rhapsodie
PERFORMER: Franklin Cohen (clarinet), Cleveland Orchestra & Chorus/Pierre Boulez
CATALOGUE NO: 439 896-2 DDD
Boulez conducting Debussy must surely be the ultimate in revelatory experiences. But there is something curiously prim and unyielding about these performances. It would be hard to fault them in terms of subtlety of expression or dynamics. The playing is superbly accurate and the recording is clear. The problem lies in the very coherence and indivisibility of the ensemble – something to be proud of, certainly, but not the best vehicle for Debussy’s visionary orchestration. Little details are always present in the score but they do not always need to be so beautifully enunciated. Just as continental orchestras have problems understanding the irony in English pastoral music, so these American players seem not to appreciate the flamboyance and breadth of Debussy’s impressionistic imagery.

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A ‘bonus’ CD is thrown in free: Boulez chatting away about Mahler, Webern and Debussy, complete with musical examples. Speaking from my perspective as a radio producer, this sounds like a half-made programme: the interviewer has been cut out and so we are left with long swathes of Boulez and equally long swathes of music. It is interesting raw material but the focus and perspective that come from the tighter discipline of broadcast media are absent. Christopher Lambton