Is Simon Rattle in danger of falling into the Karajan trap? That is to say, is he so enraptured with the glorious sound the instrument at his disposal can make that that sound becomes an end in itself? Karajan himself, of course, made a famous and much-vaunted recording of Debussy's La Mer, though it's not one I would personally put very high in the pecking order. But that recording did make some wonderful sounds. And so, too, does this one.
Perhaps I'm being a little unfair on Sir Simon. This is certainly a disc to wallow in, to relish the sounds the Berlin Philharmonic make. It starts with a L'apres-midi Prelude that is steeped - nay, saturated - in hot summer languor. The flute is perhaps made a little over-prominent in acknowledgement of the fact that a soloist of note has been used for the part, but the sound, the orchestral balance and the texture are all just ravishing. The touch on the antique cymbals at the last appearance of the main section is exquisitely integrated into the overall sound, better than I think I've ever heard before. This is all so lazily, heat-hazily dreamy that you might wonder if the priapic faun could even raise an eyebrow, never mind anything else, but it is certainly wonderful to listen to. And maybe that is enough for the Prelude.
La Mer, however, provides a sterner test. Here again, Sir Simon conjures some wonderful sound, balance and ensemble from his players. To take but one example there is a moment in the Dawn to Midday movement - about 11.45, I'd say, and I know that's not original - just before the build-up to the last great blaze of brass, where the quality and depth of sound from the lower strings is just exquisite. That final blaze of sunlight is glorious,too. And there are many moment earlier in the movement where Rattle manages to produce a magical stillness of light on water without any rhythmic slackness. In the second movement, the waves play with wonderful energy and precision. And so on. But La Mer is not just impressionistic tone-painting. It relies on a strong structure - not symphonic in the classical sense, but nonetheless a taut framework on which these vivid pictures hang. And this, I feel, is what Rattle misses - unusually for him (think of his Mahler, his Sibelius or, of course, his Beethoven). It's not a criticism I would make of his Birmingham Images for example.
La Boite a joujoux fares better - perhaps because it is less well known and there is therefore less to prove. Even the sound here seems crisper and fresher. And each of these delightful pieces from the end of Debussy's life comes up sparkling fresh. The Matthews arrangements of the three piano Preludes are nice enough, but I don't really see the point. They are so essentially pianistic, why muck about with them?
A mixed review, then, but I should reiterate the amount of pleasure there is to be gained from the orchestral playing on this disc.