TESTAMENT SBT 1212
Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
Jeux – poème dansé
La damoiselle élue
TESTAMENT SBT 1213
Images pour orchestre
Trois chansons de Charles d’Orléans
Noël des enfants qui n’ont plus de maison
TESTAMENT SBT 1214
Trois ballades de François Villon
Le martyre de saint Sébastien
Various artists with Orchestre National de la Radiodiffusion Française conducted by Désiré-Emile Inghelbrecht
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: April 2002
CD No: As above
Duration: As above
Recorded between 1953 and 1957 for Ducretet-Thomson, these recordings offer compelling interpretations of Debussy’s greatest works.
Perhaps interpretation is the wrong word: Désire-Émile Inghelbrecht (1880-1965) was not a ’star’ conductor; he bemoaned those who thought they were or tried to be. He found fault with some colleagues, not least when they departed the score with “tricks”; he was not though a slave to “the pitiless, mournful despotism of the metronome”. These superbly transferred CDs reveal Inghelbrecht serving his friend Debussy with honour and insight.
While it is obvious that Inghelbrecht has immense respect for what Debussy wrote, and a personal knowledge of the composer’s sensibilities, this brings no restriction on flexibility of pulse and considered balances to constantly illuminate the music, which lives and breathes.
The recordings are mono, but such is the authority of Inghelbrecht’s conducting and the ripe vividness of the sound-picture, that this is of little or no consequence. The short-lived Ducretet-Thomson label (the company also made radio sets) only survived the decade of the ’fifties despite a catalogue of popular, jazz and classical music.
Preserved on these immensely valuable Testament CDs are important recordings that students of Debussy will find indispensable; also captured is the distinctive French instrumental timbres that Debussy would have known and that are today all but lost – sadly. The fruity woodwind tones, the expressive vibrato of the brass, the ardent strings – all wonderful sounds absolutely at one with the music.
And what marvellous performances these are. Inghelbrecht never gets in the way of the music, but as every bar passes one is conscious of a guiding spirit subtly blending tones and shaping expression to the composer’s intentions – without pedantry. There’s plenty of heart to Inghelbrecht’s conducting – one has only to hear the affection lavished on Marche écossaise to realise that; there are few Faunes as seamless as this, nor La mers as bracing and penetrating.
Not surprisingly Inghelbrecht observes Debussy’s removing of the brass fanfares in La mer’s final movement (here 7’ 21”-7’ 40”) that Ansermet re-instated (ad-lib in the score); such is the intensity of the string-playing at this point that one doesn’t miss the ’golden’ colour (and that’s rare). One can also appreciate how Inghelbrecht judges detail to a nicety – the trombone glissandos in the second Image (’Ibéria’), 5’ 01”-5’ 15” in the first section, seem absolutely ’right’: discreetly part of the fabric. Or in ’Gigues’ (Image No.1) the pointing-up of dissonance in the final bars is unique in my experience. Earlier, 5’ 09”-5’ 18”, the trumpets’ three-time motif, twice with mutes and then without, is perfectly judged in its ’now you see me, now you don’t’ suggestiveness.
One is always conscious here of the elusiveness of Debussy’s music – and that must be the ultimate test of a conductor’s skill in this repertoire – Jeux is mysterious and fleeting while precisely realised. Those prime orchestral sounds are a joy, a tonal allure without affectation that blossoms to vibrancy in a wholly natural way; these rich seams of variegation mined by Inghelbrecht in tandem with his eloquent melodic shaping – nothing is exaggerated or skated over. The opening to La damoiselle élue is ravishing; the closing measures breathtakingly beautiful.
Equally haunting is the first of the Nocturnes (’Nuages’) that seems to evoke the sands of time; poignant loneliness is rarely this intrinsic. The warmth and sincerity of French Radio’s “Chorale” in the unaccompanied settings of Charles d’Orléans have an engaging authentic spirit; so too Bernard Plantey’s plangent baritone in the François Villon songs, the second imploringly divine. Inghelbrecht’s hour-long concert version (involving narrator, solo singers and chorus) of Debussy’s music for Le martyre de saint Sébastien has, as so much of the music-making here, a ravishing centre and a active outer, the music’s fragrant mysticism indubitable.
Anyone interested in Debussy’s music should hear these CDs (SBT 1212 the best one to start with) – Inghelbrecht gets to the music’s heart from the inside, alive to its fragility, atmosphere, emotion and perfection in equal measure.