Debussy: Jeux; La mer; Nocturnes

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WORKS: Jeux; La mer; Nocturnes
PERFORMER: Arnold Schoenberg Choir, Vienna PO/Lorin Maazel
CATALOGUE NO: 74321 64616 2
I’m not sure that the basic sound of the Vienna Philharmonic is right for these pieces: it’s like hearing French spoken with a slight Austrian accent. The string sound is as lush as one could want – perhaps too lush, especially in Jeux, where the individual lines should sparkle, rather than bask in an overall glow. And the wind aren’t always forward enough, so that Debussy’s subtle interplay of foreground and background loses some of its clarity. La Mer, though still a radical score, is less problematic, and here the absolute security of the playing leads to some marvellous moments. The passage for divided cellos in the first movement, which can bring even the best orchestras to grief, is absolutely rock solid, and there are some beautiful wind solos – the cor anglais is especially expressive. But I do feel that Maazel drives the music too hard at times, and not only at climaxes. The opening of the last movement is as cataclysmic as Mahler, and the close of the second, with its magical harmonic twist, lacks repose. In Nocturnes, the only work not to have been recorded live, Maazel’s forward thrust pays dividends in Fêtes, though not in Sirènes. For the benchmark I would turn to Boulez, who brings his French precision to bear on these scores, manages to get really quiet playing where Debussy asks for it, and seems to have time to let the music unfold naturally, even though most of his timings are shorter than Maazel’s. Martin Cotton