Debussy/Ravel: La mer; Printemps

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Debussy/Ravel
LABELS: Chandos
WORKS: La mer; Printemps
PERFORMER: Ulster Orchestra/Yan Pascal Tortelier
Forget Eastbourne. The seascape of this La mer is far from the grey north, inspiring a palette of vivid colours, a sun that ascends the midday sky with grandeur, and a wild, Mediterranean storm – the air temperature remains warm. Supple and fluent, full of affection without being loved to death, the performance also has the strictly musical virtues of fine, shapely phrasing and tempo transitions whose ease, as heard, reveals careful planning. Accompanying woodwind detail needs the ear of faith here and there; generally the sound is clear, despite ample resonance.


A similar relish for colour distinguishes the gentle, Massenet-like spring and burgeoning excitement of the symphonic suite Printemps. It also encourages high hopes in the conductor’s pursuit of the unlikely, if not impossible, task of adapting exquisitely scored chamber music. Ravel, the master orchestrator, could manage his own piano music, but others have fallen short. Tortelier, amazingly, succeeds – partly because in the Piano Trio in A minor he has chosen a work with the weight and scale to take big forces, but largely through a fine ear that time and again leads him to fresh sounds without trying to out-Ravel the composer.

Clearly a labour of love, the outcome shows faith in the sound of divided strings (often recalling the music for Ma mère l’oye) and skill in approaching a crescendo so that it does not have to erupt suddenly. Only a few details leave doubts. The final gesture is disconcertingly raw, and the restless changes to be heard in the Scherzo rather miss the point of Ravel’s interweaving strands of two kinds of music.


The recording has many moments of total magic, and the quiet ending of the first movement – drumtaps under a fading chord – had me making action replays several times over. Robert Maycock