La mer – three symphonic sketches
Debussy orch. Colin Matthews
Préludes [a selection of 12 from Books I & II]
Recorded 14-16 July & 2 August 2006 in BBC Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: July 2007
CD No: HALLÉ CD HLL 7513
Duration: 68 minutes
A tangible sense of promise informs the opening of La mer; a glinting soundscape materialises, detail is explicit, and what lies under the surface, in the depths, isn’t glossed over. Mark Elder’s symphonic and scenic account (more the former) brings freshness to this master-score, the Hallé responding in full range to its Music Director’s wishes, his flexible but linear approach paying many dividends regarding evocation and structure. Just occasionally something less grey-sounding and more dynamic is needed from the sound – although an increase in volume can bring some of the amplitude sought. Elder plays the ad lib brass fanfares in the finale (irksome to some listeners, although if they are not present the inner ear adds them in) and this scrupulous reading certainly brings Debussy’s miraculous achievement into fibrous view; there are glossier and more Impressionistic versions than Elder’s, but this one underlines that Debussy wasn’t painting in blurred water colours.
To a Hallé commission Colin Matthews has orchestrated all 24 of Debussy’s Préludes for piano: quite an undertaking. The 12 here (the other half will follow on a future Hallé CD), mixed from both Books, make enticing listening. Matthews isn’t a slave to Debussian style, although much is reminiscent to the composer and much convinces as an ‘extension’ of the original; where Matthews adds another layer, that is neither himself nor or Debussy, then the results can be slightly questionable, and some of the Préludes seem more resistible to orchestral colouring than others. Those that work best are triumphs, however, and all are ‘dressed’ with imagination and skill. Those Préludes with an interior life, and with a threat of violence, come of best; those that are decorous maybe seem a little dandified. Thus ‘Brouillards’ encircles mysteries and warnings, ‘Ce qu’a vu le vent d’Ouest’ has real physical power, ‘Canope’ is rapt, ‘Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir’ sensual, ‘Feuilles mortes’ communes with those things lost, and ‘Les tierces alternées’ has unswerving rhythmic swagger. To close, two Préludes come as an ‘item’: ‘Le vent dans la plaine’ scurries and splinters and is then joined at the hip to ‘La fille aux cheveux de lin’, here deliberately slowed (and it’s not ‘fast’ music anyway) and bathed in hypnotic moonlight. It almost seems electronically manipulated, but Matthews has contented himself with strings and harp; the end result may be going too far, though, an idealisation rather than an orchestration, for the essential heartfelt simplicity of the original seems forfeited.
No doubts about the quality of the performances; every strand and colour that Matthews has invested into his scoring is beautifully realised and seems that more tangible and vivid than parts of La mer. The occasional reservation aside, this is a very recommendable release.