WORKS: Orchestral Works, Vol. 1: La mer; Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune; Jeux; Children’s Corner (orch. Caplet) & Vol. 2 Nocturnes; Berceuse héroïque; Trois Etudes (orch Jarrell); Clair de lune (orch. Caplet); Pelléas et Mélisande – Symphonie (arr. M Constant)
PERFORMER: Orchestre National de Lyon/Jun Märkl
CATALOGUE NO: 8.570759 & 8.570993
These first two volumes of Debussy’s orchestral works from the Orchestre National de Lyon under Jun Märkl, with their inventive programming, appear to make an attractive proposition. Performance-wise, the orchestra makes a vibrant and attractive sound, and there is plenty of colour to charm the ear. Unfortunately, that is where the positives largely evaporate, for these performances catch fire only intermittently.
Every note is in its place, but this music needs more. For instance, the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune is essentially a study in ambiguity, not just harmonically but also rhythmically, and yet the metre here is almost militarily clear-cut at times. This lack of flexibility is endemic. ‘Dialogue du vent et de la mer’, the third movement of La mer, contains too many places where repeated note phrases lack direction, becoming becalmed.
There are beautiful moments, such as the magical island of hush in the eye of this storm, though this highlights how few genuine pianissimos have been heard. Similarly, there is plenty of detail in the Nocturnes, but not enough nuance. ‘Fêtes’ feels relentless rather than zestful, while the ‘Sirènes’ are more feisty than seductive. Sound is admirably clear but heavily spotlit, placing the listener right next to the harp for its glissando in ‘Fêtes’.
The arrangements also suffer, Children’s Corner lacking a sense of playfulness, especially in ‘Gollywog’s Cakewalk’. Michael Jarrell’s orchestrations of three of the Etudes fare rather better, especially ‘Pour les sonorités opposées’, though ‘Pour les accords’ loses panache when transferred to orchestra.
Marius Constant’s Pelléas et Mélisande ‘Symphonie’ is a reasonably tasteful weaving together of the orchestral interludes. These are not so much highlights – a profoundly inadequate word in this opera – as a distillation of fleeting moods.
On its own terms it can be a guilty pleasure, but for each transcendent frisson, there seems to be a corresponding mundane stagger. To put it another way, the music of the forest should not sound like wood. If only some clever sound engineer could knit an equivalent orchestral sequence from Désormière’s recording of the complete opera. Christopher Dingle