DEBUSSY La Mer; La Boîte à joujoux; Préludes – Rattle
Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic’s perfumed, pictorial 1964 recordings of Debussy’s Prélude à L’après-midi d’un faune and La mer have come to be revered – and rightly so, as they possess a remarkable frisson. Rattle’s interpretations, recorded live, are markedly less urgent; with nary a noise from the audience, one might even mistake them for studio recordings. Yet these new accounts, too, have the ability to engross and sometimes even astonish. Note, for example, the sinuous swoop of the flutes and clarinets at the beginning of ‘Jeux de vagues’ in La mer, or the shimmering rustle of strings at 1’00” in the Prélude – both almost tactile sensations.
Of course, one counts on Rattle to elucidate detail, and here the clarification of the music’s intricately layered textures is revelatory. Karajan appears more intent on blending colours, creating a kind of sonic kaleidoscope that, coupled with a strong narrative thrust, can make Debussy sound a little like Rimsky-Korsakov. Subtlety may be part of the issue. Karajan, for example, heightens dynamic contrast whereas Rattle grades the dynamics as per Debussy’s instructions (he’s one of the few conductors who seems to have noticed that there’s but one fortissimo in the Prélude).
The makeweights are especially valuable. There aren’t that many recordings of La boîte à joujoux in the catalogue and this zestful, gracefully droll performance is among the best. As in the Prélude and La mer, the conductor’s supple tempo manipulations convey a real feeling of spontaneity. Colin Matthews’s scoring of three piano Préludes evokes Debussy’s sound world with preternatural accuracy. The turbulence of ‘Ce qu’a vu le vent d’Ouest’ and sparkle of ‘Feux d’artifice’ are most impressive, though ‘Feuilles mortes’, with its hauntingly desolate atmosphere, is perhaps finer still. In short, a dazzling disc.