Debussy
Images pour orchestre [I: Gigues; II: Ibéria; III: Rondes de printemps]
Jeux – poème dansé
Nocturnes [I: Nuages; II: Fêtes; III: Sirènes]
La mer – three symphonic sketches
Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
Marche écossaise
Printemps
L’Enfant prodigue – Prélude; Cortège et Air de danse
Berceuse héroïque
Women of the RSNO Chorus [Sirènes]

Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Stéphane Denève

Recorded 10-12 October 2011 & 7-9 February 2012 in Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow
CD No: CHANDOS CHSA 5102
(2 SACDs)
Duration: 2 hours 26 minutes
Reviewed: September 2012
A generous and handsome Debussy package from Chandos, something of a ‘golden farewell’ for Stéphane Denève given, at the time of the recording sessions, he was on the cusp of stepping down from the music directorship of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, which on the strength of this release alone seems a real pity. What does Stuttgart offer that Glasgow does not?
These are truly excellent performances from a conductor who writes (in the booklet) that “I passionately love Debussy’s music!”. Such fondness shows itself throughout these performances, superbly recorded by Ralph Couzens – audiophiles will be in Heaven! – and produced to the highest standards by Brian Pidgeon.
Journeying these fastidiously prepared, enthusiastically and classily played accounts, one is aware of a beguiling clarity of detailing and a wide dynamic range that shed fresh light on Debussy’s orchestrations, his wide breadth of expression and his ability to paint pictures; for Denève and his musicians bring this music alive with many human emotions and diverting illuminations.
The great set of orchestral Images, which has done so well in the studio (Munch, Cluytens and Dutoit, to name but three) – together with our own personal memories of concerts (mine would be the perfect engineering of Boulez and the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the mid-1970s) find suggestive contrasts of mood to fire the imagination. Ibéria is notable for being unforced, Denève giving the music time to lilt, and suggesting the “happy feelings” of Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony, add to which something ebullient and sultry, motifs intertwining meaningfully. In the central panel, ‘Les parfums de la nuit’, it is impossible to forget the whispers of nocturnal sounds that Celibidache hypnotically conjured in Munich (EMI), and in concerts in London with the LSO, a suspension of time that no other conductor can match, but Denève certainly brings fragrance and seclusion to this haunting section.
He also has all the expressive flexibility needed for the “seminal” (Boulez) Jeux (sexual shenanigans on a tennis court!), a fleeting and sensuous reading generously afforded ten cueing points and a scenario. The triptych of Nocturnes is wonderfully atmospheric, then brilliantly spectral, with the final ‘Sirènes’ gently alluring with much promise, the ladies of the RSNO Chorus keeping in pitch, something not always guaranteed in this music.
An unexpected but welcome benefit is Denève’s use of antiphonal violins (with double basses placed to the left). It is not an arrangement one associates with this conductor, and is also contrary to the group photograph in the booklet; but, with perfect microphone placement, this seating plan is an invaluable aid to the lucidity and dialogue that is inherent in the music and which Denève is at great pains to highlight.
Disc 2 begins with La mer, a rendition right up there with the best (Fournet, Leonard Slatkin, Celibidache, Ansermet...) as illustrative as it is symphonic and as delicate and pastel-shaded as it is dramatic and turbulent. Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune is spaciously taken, burgeoning rapturously at its mid-point. There remain some Debussyian ‘chips’, not least the early Printemps, which Denève makes a strong case for, while the sentimental and the haunting strains of Marche ecossaise are played from the collective Scottish heart. The snippets from L’Enfant prodique include a yearning ‘Prélude’ and a soufflé-like ‘Danse’ that has just a hint of the exotic. Last but not least, and one of Debussy’s final utterances, the First World War-related Berceuse héroïque, a dark homage to Albert, King of Belgium, fragile, ghostly, but not without consoling humanity.
It seems that the muse magically landed at these sessions, for they were certainly blessed, and Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall seems to have an equally hallowed acoustic. It’s been no hardship to listen to these discs right through, and to return to them – for these wonderful performances, gloriously captured, of music of infinite variety, confirm the genius of Achille-Claude Debussy.

 

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