Debussy La mer; Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune; Images

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Claude Debussy
LABELS: Sony Classical
ALBUM TITLE: Debussy La mer; Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune; Images
WORKS: La mer; Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune; Images
PERFORMER: French National Orchestra/Daniele Gatti
CATALOGUE NO: 88697974002

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This is to some extent a tale of two venues. The Images were recorded at an undisclosed site in Alfortville, a Paris suburb, and the sound is perfectly satisfactory. As elsewhere on the disc, I should often have liked quieter playing where marked, and the strings at times overpower the woodwind; also, there’s some surprisingly insensitive trumpet playing in the middle movement of Ibéria. But there’s plenty of colour here, and the tempos are undoubtedly well chosen.

The other items were recorded in the poor acoustics of the Salle Liebermann of the Bastille Opera. This venue, one of the many problem areas of that generally unloved building, is currently used for orchestral rehearsals; as from 2013, it will cease to house music at all, being handed over to the dramas of the Comédie-Française. The sound is generally harsh, unyielding and entirely lacking in mystery – which, in La mer, is quite a handicap.

Gatti did, I’m told, do wonders with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. But here his interpretation lacks subtlety (he totally ignores the flexible tempo demanded for the first appearance of the big sea theme in the finale), and some details such as the high A flat violin harmonic are inaudible. Understandably, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune is the great loser. And how was the solo flautist at the start allowed to cut short the second of the two initial C sharps that should hang, tantalisingly, impalpably, in space? I’m sure I’m wrong, but the impression is of ‘Allons, mes enfants, I can smell lunch!’

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Roger Nichols