Debussy Orchestral Works

Author: 
John Steane
Nocturnes – Concertgebouw Orchestra / HaitinkNocturnes – Concertgebouw Orchestra / Haitink

DEBUSSY Orchestral Works – van Beinum/Haitink

  • Berceuse héroïque
  • Images
  • Jeux
  • Marche écossaise sur un thème populaire
  • Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune
  • Nocturnes
  • (La) Mer
  • Première rapsodie
  • Danse sacrée et danse profane

If you have been following Gramophone's response to new recordings of Debussy's La mer, Nocturnes and Jeux for the last 15 or so years, you will probably have found many references to Haitink's late-1970s recordings, usually to the newcomer's disadvantage. In the 1980s Philips transferred some of them on to two separate full-price CDs: the Gramophone Award-winning Nocturnes and Jeux were uneconomically coupled on the first (6/83), and the second included La mer, the Prelude, and ''Iberia'' only from his complete Images (6/87). At last, Philips have repackaged them to include the full contents of all three LPs—on two CDs for the price of one. Space has also been found for Debussy's last orchestral work, the short Berceuse heroique conducted by Eduard van Beinum (in excellent 1957 stereo). As for the booklet, there is an edited version of Max Harrison's fine essay that accompanied the LP box reissue.
All considerations—minutes for money, performance, recording, documentation—make this package a genuine bargain. When I surveyed the available recordings of La mer for the January 1993 Gramophone Collection, Haitink's 1976 recording had just been deleted, and I wrote then that, had it been available, it would have been a front-runner. Listening again in tandem with my first choice, the 1964 Karajan on DG Galleria, there is a similar concern for refinement and fluidity of gesture, for a subtle illumination of texture; and both display a colourist's knowledge and use of an individual—but always apt—variety of orchestral tone and timbre. In both conductors' hands, La mer emerges firmly as an impressionist masterpiece; if there is anything that eludes projection or sharpness of focus, you sense that it is intended, not accidental (nor attributable to analogue recording parameters). Significantly Haitink opts for the muted tones of the celesta rather than the brighter (and more usual) glockenspiel. Karajan occasionally encourages overpowering tone from his Berlin violins, and I've seen his reading criticized for being unidiomatically 'Germanic'; a reaction I don't really understand—assuming that 'Germanic' is to be understood as a (somewhat racist) simile for 'heavy'—as Karajan's 1964 La mer is among the most fleet on disc (mostly closer than Haitink's to Debussy's often surprisingly fast indications of tempo). Perhaps Karajan's, like Haitink's, is 'Germanic' in its richly sounded lower voices, but they are essential for, at the very least, a realization of Debussy's full aquatic imagery. Maybe the Dutchmen are less 'Germanic' in their generally lighter articulation of rhythm (a case in point is the rocking motion on strings in the second half of the first movement), but then all Haitink's Debussy is notable for his location of rhythm, and its buoyant and precise articulation. Neither Haitink nor Karajan goes in for short-term cinematic thrills—such as Sinopoli's 'Kraken awakes in Watford Town Hall' at the beginning of the finale—indeed, you may find Haitink's finale's initial turbulence a little understated, but not, I feel sure, the closing pages where just enough caution is thrown to the wind for, to my ears, one of the best compromises between a jubilant noise and an articulate one, and an acoustic that magnificently accommodates it. The recording (comparable to today's finest) has a wider dynamic range than DG's for Karajan, and the playing is glorious (perfectionists may like to know that there are none of the minor imprecisions that occur in Karajan's first movement). I do have one trifling complaint, which I should be ashamed of airing—the solo cornet in La mer's finale at 3'00'' marked pp tres lointain is a present mf, as are the similarly marked trumpets at the start of the central procession in ''Fetes'' from Nocturnes.
It is good to have Haitink's complete Images on CD. For many of us in the late 1970s, it was the natural successor to Monteux's 1963 recording (which Philips should reissue this year, the thirtieth anniversary of Monteux's death, hopefully without the artificial reverberation). Since Haitink, we have had complete recordings from, amongst others, Rattle who is noticeably freer, often taking the score's marked ritardandos and rubato as a starting-point, and drawing a greater range of colour and expression from his strings (as did Monteux). But Haitink is far from stiff or characterless—it is the wind playing that you remember: the melancholy and disconsolate oboe d'amore in ''Gigues''; and from ''Iberia'', the gorgeous oboe solo in ''Les parfums de la nuit'', and the carousing clarinets and raucous trumpets in the succeeding holiday festivities. And here, as elsewhere in the set, the Concertgebouw acoustic plays a vital role: after its wide open spaces, EMI's sound for Rattle suggests only an empty hall. Haitink's Jeux, though not as slow, or as naughty as Rattle's, is slower and freer than average, and possessed of a near miraculous precision, definition and delicacy. I know of no other account where Debussy's large orchestra so resembles a fine tuned, perfectly balanced chamber ensemble; or where the ''orchestral banter'' (Messiaen's description) is as vivid and variegated.
The jewel in this set, for many, will be the Nocturnes, principally for the purity of the strings in ''Nuages'' (sparing vibrato and, mercifully, not a slide in earshot); the dazzling richness and majesty of the central procession in ''Fetes''; and the cool beauty and composure of ''Sirenes''. It is in this last movement where interpretation and balance differ most widely, with Solti and Previn (EMI, 3/85—nla) opting for a voluptuous presence for the ladies chorus, and Haitink an ethereal distance. I have to say my preference is firmly with Haitink. There may be passages where you are unsure if they are singing or not (for example, after fig. 8, 5'55''), but the effect is quite as magical as the entry of the offstage choir in ''Neptune'' from The Planets, and their distance similarly suggests regions infinite—an image as appropriate for the sea as it is for outer space.'

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