Orchestral music by Debussy and Ravel

Author: 
Robert Layton
debussy ravel karajan

DEBUSSY La mer; Prélude; RAVEL Daphnis Suite No 2; Boléro

  • Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune
  • (La) Mer
  • Pavane pour une infante défunte
  • Daphnis et Chloé Suites, Suite No. 2

Karajan's 1965 DG account of La mer was a classic and, together with Giulini and the Philharmonia from 1963 (HMV SXLP30146, 8/72), dominated the catalogue for more than a decade. Alas, when the DG was reissued the Second Suite from Daphnis et Chloe, a ravishing account of the score, was replaced for some reason by Bolero. So I naturally approached this new issue with the keenest anticipation—indeed, excitement.
I began my listening with the Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune but was rather put off by the sweet-toned, wide vibrato of the flautist, wider and more honeyed than Karlheinz Zoller in either the 1965 performance for DG or the 1978 for EMI (reissued earlier this year): the player is uncredited here. Indeed, for all the beauties of the orchestral playing and the splendour of the digital sound, this Prelude a l'apres-midi does not capture the magic Karajan distilled in his 1965 account: this remains one of the most beautiful readings of this work ever committed to record. (Elsewhere—and most importantly, in the ''Pantomime'' movement of Daphnis—the flute vibrato is less extreme and obtrusive.)
The new record of La mer itself is by any standards very fine indeed: Karajan's interpretation does not differ in broad essentials from 1965. Indeed, putting various passages of all three recordings side by side, one realizes that the differences of detail are small (the opening of the ''De l'aube a midi sur la mer'' is marginally more measured in the 1978 account than in 1965 or 1986) but it is one's overall (and inevitably subjective) impression of the three performances that tells. The 1978 opening strikes me as a bit self-conscious, whereas both this newcomer and the 1965 record bring the score immediately before one's ears. The new recording incidentally is among the best to have emerged from the Philharmonie in recent months, and the sound of the Berlin strings is sumptuous with detail well placed and in a generally natural perspective. The new La mer is very much closer to the earlier reading and it is a joy to relish the beauty of the playing in such clear, well-defined sound. However, of the three, the 1965 account is always the one I want to go on listening to. It has that indefinable quality that one can more readily recognize than describe, a magic that makes one forget the performer and transports one directly into the composer's world. The difference between this new La mer and the earlier one, is that between a very fine performance and a great one.
The new Daphnis is again marvellously played and no one coming to it is likely to be disappointed, but again, it, too, misses something of the extraordinary rapture and ecstasy that informed Karajan's earlier account. If no one hearing the newcomer will be disappointed, no one hearing the 1965 version will ever be likely to forget it. (Like his La mer, this is a great performance—and it should be restored to circulation.)
Summing up: for CD collectors the choice for La mer resides between Karajan and Sir Colin Davis with the Boston orchestra on Philips—a refined recording, coupled with the Nocturnes and having just replayed it I am really torn between them. I must say I also like Tilson Thomas on CBS in spite of an unnaturally balanced and lush recording. On LP the Davis is handicapped by a rather low-level transfer, while Serge Baudo (EMI Eminence) has the advantage of excellent quality (see ''Sounds in Retrospect'' on page 946) and is most competitively priced. Moreover, Jonathan Snowden's playing in the Prelude a l'apres-midi is most poetic and I would strongly recommend it. In a class of its own, as I have already said, is the mid-price 1965 DG Karajan listed above.'

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