There was a time when only French conductors were good at the music of Debussy. If a Germanic conductor such as Leinsdorf or Szell played ‘La Mer’ (“The Sea”), it sounded more like ‘Das Meer’ (or ‘La Merde’ for less charitable listeners). Though the French remain dominant in this music, it says a lot for the stylistic growth of the art that this new Telarc hybrid SACD by Paavo Jдrvi and the Cincinnati Symphony falls more into the French tradition than into the generic modern style. Indeed, Jдrvi’s deployment of his forces suggests an awareness of the old-fashioned “French sound” that has all but disappeared from modern orchestras. On the other hand, those who dislike the dry, pointillist manner of the French style and long for reverb-laden washes of “evocative” sound may not find this to their liking at all.
To hear what French orchestras used to sound like, it’s fun to visit the Debussy recordings by D.E. Inghelbrecht reissued on Testament. Désiré-Émile was a friend of Debussy who later made a handful of recordings conducting the master’s music. Inghelbrecht was young when he knew Debussy, and his recordings date from decades later, but they speak with enormous authority. Inghelbrecht’s ‘La Mer’ dates from 1954, and is one of the last major recordings to feature old French-style oboes and bassoons, domestically-made instruments with a much wider, softer, and more plangent tone color than the German-made bassoons which are exclusively used today. French conductor Pierre Boulez has gone on record being fully in favor of the German instruments, because they are more precise, easier to keep in tune, and easier to balance with the rest of the orchestra. But Inghelbrecht’s recording demonstrates what was lost, not merely in abandoning those instruments, but also in the change from the characteristically dry and bright French playing manner, to the more saturated middle-European style which now dominates. The sound of Inghelbrecht’s orchestra can at times be harsh, and those winds do have some struggles with intonation, but there is such a vibrantly “right” feel to the sound, that it remains impossible to ignore how different modern orchestral sound is. Indeed, the last two orchestras in the world that still had anything remotely “French” about their sound both recently changed conductors, so such styles are quickly slipping into the irretrievable past. Michel Plasson has long conducted the orchestra in Toulouse, France, but he recently left after a tenure of nearly four decades. And in Canada, the great Montreal Symphony broke out in open rebellion against their demanding (but outstanding) music director, Charles Dutoit, leading to his angry resignation a few years back. One fears that soon our orchestras will be as corporately generic as fast food restaurants. Paavo Jarvi is to be lauded for bucking that trend in this recording.
Perhaps the central modern-style recordings are the two versions of ‘La Mer’ which Pierre Boulez has recorded. His first recording of Debussy’s seascape was made for Columbia in the late 1960’s with the New Philharmonia Orchestra. It perfectly illustrates Boulez’ lucid, unfussy manner with Debussy. Everything flows clearly, the balancing of textures throughout the orchestra is exquisite. The original recording is spacious, but its transfer to compact disc by CBS in the 1980’s had a touch of glassy glare to it. One would hope to see it resurrected by Sony for high-resolution reissue in the future (that is, if the company that invented SACD format might decide to actually support it with releases). The conductor’s Cleveland Orchestra remake for Deutsche Grammophon in the 1990’s is similarly impressive. If anything, Boulez’ grip is even more assured, and the precise recording captures many details that tend to flit by unheard in most recordings. That clarity also means it is less evocative of a recording than the older Columbia, and for all its artfulness, the Cleveland Orchestra never sounds as spontaneous as the New Philharmonia did. But the reason these Boulez performances are “central” to the modern discography of these works is that they have set the tone for most approaches to Debussy in the last few decades, which is to say very cool, gleaming, and lucid. By comparison, Inghelbrecht’s approach uses less refined, brighter daubs of instrumental color. The suaveness of Boulez was surely a welcome change of pace from some of the waywardly colorful renditions of the past, but now that years have gone by, perhaps a return to a less clinical approach is due.
The mainstream alternative to Boulez is the lush recording made by Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic in 1964, where Karajan makes the most of his orchestra’s high-glamour sound to produce a velvety, sleek rendition, recorded in the Jesus-Christe-Kirche in Berlin for maximum reverberation. This approach leaves the details suspended in an evocative sonic haze that has made this recording a favorite of many listeners over the years, and its latest incarnation in Deutsche Grammophon’s Originals series (coupled with the Ravel orchestration of Mussorgsky’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’) still delights on that level. This recording more than any other made Debussy “impressionistic” in the manner of a fuzzy Monet painting, but it should be remembered that Debussy himself hated the term “impressionism”, and did not feel it accurately applied to his music. Looking at the aesthetic circles Debussy moved in, and considering the poetry he set to music, he was much more involved with the Symbolist movement. Making Debussy sound “impressionistic” is an impressive artistic achievement, and characteristically, Karajan achieved it with great flair, but it ultimately it has more to do with Karajan than Debussy. One welcome feature of his recording, though, is that he uses the revised score which includes some extra trumpet lines just before the climax of the finale. Once you’ve heard those lines, the original score sounds bare without them.
One notable recording from the late 1980’s which kept in touch with older French styles, albeit on modern instruments, was the EMI recording by Michel Plasson and the Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse. By working in the relative isolation of a regional city, Plasson was able to preserve something of the old sound while incorporating the technological advances of new instruments and ever-rising standards of playing made possible by the enormous number of fine music schools which popped up in the twentieth century. Plasson convincingly keeps elements of the traditional dry yet open French sound, as well as keeping things moving along at swift speeds. Other French-style performances have included a bright if somewhat hectic recording from the great Ernest Ansermet and l’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande for Decca, and a genial if slightly bland EMI recording by Andrй Previn and the London Symphony. Also available on SACD (though only in three-channel stereo) is the RCA recording by Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony. While again preserving many of the fine features of the French approach to ‘La Mer’ it doesn’t pack as much fizz as most of Munch’s RCA recordings from Boston, and indeed is mainly worth having as a filler to Munch’s Saint-Saлns ‘Organ Symphony’, reviewed here previously. It is worth noting, too, that all these other French-style performances take the last movement considerably faster than Inghelbrecht, who consulted firsthand with the composer about how it should go.
More typical of the non-French modern approach would be a recording like the Philips recording made in the early 1980’s by Sir Colin Davis and the Boston Symphony. The colors are more muted than in French performances, and the broad pacing leaves the piece a touch stolid. Michael Tilson Thomas recorded a similar performance around the same time for CBS with the Philharmonia Orchestra. Other recordings in this vein have included Neeme Jarvi with Detroit Symphony on Chandos and Vladimir Ashkenazy with the Cleveland Orchestra on Decca. I have not, unfortunately, had the luck to hear the esteemed recording by Bernard Haitink on Philips, which has many devoted fans, and judging by Haitink’s recording of Debussy’s ‘Nocturnes’ (discussed below), it would doubtless be a prime recommendation.
It is also worth mentioning a couple of other classic recordings from the monophonic era. EMI “Great Conductors of the Twentieth Century” series included a volume dedicated to performances by the great Greek conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos. His ‘La Mer’ with the New York Philharmonic was recorded in 1950, and it surely counts as one of the most extreme versions of the work ever put on disc. When Mitropoulos evokes the sea, he calls forth the Mediterranean Sea of southern Europe in a performance more highly charged and febrile than is customary. It is not sentimental or emotional, however, and so it works amazingly well. What is undeniable is that Mitropoulos and company bring a sense of danger and excitement to the work that is missing from all modern performances. Instead, the modern approach is best glimpsed in its nascent form on the New York Philharmonic’s deluxe box set of recordings taken from their broadcast archives. It features a 1954 concert performance led by Guido Cantelli, which combines warmth and energy with a remarkably elegant smoothness. It certainly points in the direction of Boulez, although Boulez omits much of the warmth.
Paavo Jarvi doesn’t stand too far off the traditional path, but, like Michel Plasson, he has a concept which recognizes the importance of the traditional French approach to orchestral sound. Thus, the rhythms are lightly sprung, the textures are kept airy and open, woodwinds are never swamped by the strings, and there is a consistent effort to find the center of gravity in each musical phrase, instead of emphasizing all notes more-or-less equally, which to a certain degree is a hallmark of the Germanic approach (and which is why, despite his taste for clarity, Boulez is as much Germanic as French). What is most remarkable about Jarvi’s approach is that this deftly Francophilic approach is coming from a non-French conductor. Whereas Mitropoulos and Cantelli evoke their native lands’ Mediterranean Sea, and Boulez or Colin Davis capture more muted tones of the North Atlantic, Paavo Jarvi does not merely transport Debussy’s piece to his native Estonia, nor to America where he now lives. Rather, he captures a suitably bright sound, firmly echoing the old French style. This interestingly stands in contrast with his father Neeme Jarvi’s Chandos recording, which seems drenched with the chilly spray of the Baltic Sea (or perhaps that’s just waves of the sort of extra reverb Chandos used to favor). In the end, for this approach, I would still give top nod to Plasson, with special status reserved for the old Inghelbrecht recording. For the finest modern mainstream approach, Boulez continues to hold sway in ‘La Mer’, though his accompanying ‘Nocturnes’ are not in the same league. Paavo Jarvi’s rendition will please fans of the French style, though devotees of the Karajan approach may find this ‘La Mer’ a little dry.
The piece which opens this new Telarc disc is the ‘Prйlude а l’apres-midi d’un faune’ (“Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun”). This piece is probably Debussy’s most famous work, a dreamy orchestral evocation of the sensuous atmosphere of the poem by Stйphane Mallarmй. But now it’s confession time: After decades of listening to dozens of recordings of this piece over and over again, I still can’t say that I’ve grown to care for it very much. I don’t have anything against it, but I don’t have a lot for it, either. I can recognize in an abstract way why it was so shocking and revolutionary in its day, but I have never been able to rouse any great enthusiasm for it, except for the mysteriously inconclusive final few bars. Other than that, I’ve always viewed the piece as nine minutes of meandering sound with nary a solid downbeat in sight. The Cincinnati winds are well caught in this recording, playing with color and shapely turns of phrase, and the fact that it does nothing for me is of course my problem, not the performance’s, as it joins a crowd of other famous recordings which left me respectful but unmoved. We all have our blind spots!
What a different story with the ‘Nocturnes’. They have always appealed to me, and their allure grows with every passing year. And I was pleased to find that here Paavo Jarvi scores his biggest triumph. He nails a perfect pace for the elusive first nocturne, ‘Nuages’ (“Clouds”) neither distending it like Tilson Thomas, nor over-efficiently dispatching it а la Boulez. Jarvi finds a tempo that holds the fragmentary movement together yet allows for a brooding buildup of tension. Is there any other piece in the repertory which is equally devastating in such a quiet, half-spoken manner? How innovatively Debussy suggests a foggy night; instead of covering more-or-less conventional melodies with a cloud of random soft notes as Richard Strauss did in his ‘Alpine Symphony’, Debussy uses a backdrop of silence to suggest the fog. All the instrumental sounds are clear, but one gets the sense that they are merely fragments of more complete sounds which have drifted in past a curtain of silence. Here, a distant boat horn, there, a snatch of voices down the street. Jarvi captures the still, gray agony exquisitely, and Telarc’s recording captures the oppressive room ambiance of the vast spaces of Cincinnati’s Music Hall, hanging impassively behind the sounds, swallowing them as quickly as they appear. In the second nocturne, ‘Fкtes’, Jarvi keeps an admirable focus on the woodwinds, so that their contributions are like flashes of color in a night-time street party. For the procession in the middle of the movement, Jarvi opts for on-stage trumpets played with mutes, though offstage unmuted trumpets would have provided a nice chance to move some sounds to the rear surround channels. Telarc’s recording keeps the percussion distanced enough to not overwhelm the rest of the orchestra (although more punch would have been preferable at the climax), and Jarvi purposefully keeps the strings from swamping the woodwinds throughout. Telarc’s recording rightly lets the silences play an important part in this music, instead of covering all pauses with artificial reverberation. It’s hard to imagine the dry, pointillistic style of French orchestration making sense without such silence as a backdrop. Again, those who prefer to wallow in their Debussy won’t care for the recorded sound here, but I think it helps Jarvi create an effective approach. Most felicitous of all is Jarvi’s shaping of phrases, injecting energy into every paragraph, while always keeping plenty in reserve. Jarvi is fairly spacious in the final nocturne, ‘Sirenes’, but he never sags into the slowness of the Davis or Tilson Thomas recordings. Although I might momentarily miss the reckless energy of a Monteux or Dorбti careening into the central climax of ‘Fкtes’, Paavo Jarvi’s performance of the ‘Nocturnes’ is the best to come along in several years, outdoing Boulez/Cleveland and Abbado/Berlin quite handily, and standing proudly alongside earlier recordings by Michel Plasson and Bernard Haitink.
The ‘Berceuse elegiaque’ closes the disc with the elusive half-lights of Debussy’s later works. Its less-familiar byways prove an attractive filler for this effective compilation, adding further proof to the increasingly widespread view that Paavo Jarvi is the most enterprising conductor since Thomas Schippers to have held the top post in Cincinnati.
Telarc has made many recordings over the years in Cincinnati’s Music Hall, so they have certainly become familiar with its strengths and weaknesses. One challenge is that the hall is so large, orchestral sound can be swallowed up in the silences. But that very feature is used to advantage here, utilizing silence as an integral part of the music. Delicately scored music which didn’t specifically take into account the impact of silence might become dwarfed by the space, but Debussy’s approach works quite naturally in this venue. The wooden stage of the building helps create a rich and mellow orchestral sound, but the high resolution of Telarc’s DSD recording picks up the bright instrumental colors that are so central to Debussy’s sound-world. As is the usual approach for Telarc, there is a fair amount of bounceback in the surround channels to give the listener a strong sense of being within the space where the music is being played. Some may find that a tad artificial sounding, but recording is an art like everything else, and Telarc does it exceptionally well. Their goal is to create an ideal soundscape, one that is a little better in focus and presence than any true seat in Music Hall could ever be, and in that, they succeed. There is effective three-dimensional sense of depth to the orchestral sound-picture on stage, capturing the depth of the stage in real life. The combination of Jarvi’s balancing, the orchestral playing, the sure deployment of the microphones, and the resolution of the DSD recording (both in stereo and multichannel) make the woodwinds a joy to the ears throughout this recording. I do feel that the percussion is arguably a little too tastefully controlled and kept at arm’s length, but the timbre of their sounds are caught clearly. The regular CD layer of this hybrid is up to Telarc’s usual fine standards, though it doesn’t come to life as vividly as the SACD layers.
In sum, Paavo Jarvi and the Cincinnati Symphony have given us a fine, perceptive Debussy disc. Telarc’s recorded sound works hand-in-hand with the conductor’s stylistic approach as well as with the natural sound of the hall to make Debussy’s music come to life with its French flavors intact. Jarvi’s ‘Nocturnes’ is the best to come along in many years, and claims a distinguished place among the many competing recordings. The rest of the program is not quite as sharply characterized, but still fares well in Jarvi’s deft hands. The Telarc recording is fine as well, lacking only a little boisterousness from the percussion in the climaxes.