Following their disc of Messiaen's Eclairs de l'au-cela, this disc marks the first dip into the French repertoire on disc by this partnership. A number of good insights are in store here, but also some unfulfilled potential. With a little sag to its opening line, Emmanuel Pahud starts things off for Afternoon of a Faun, same line as repeated by him enhanced to its proper shape several minutes later. This assures us that work from Berlin's wind principals and sections, mysterious answering horns included at the outset here, will most often remain at a high level. Typical of late-period Karajan, lets say, strings lush out their sonorities well, but come up expressively dry somehow at the same time. The best moments in this Prelude tend to be the more scherzo-esque, except for those who like this piece all sultry, hazy, impressionistic, more or less. Rattle, to his favor unlike Karajan, waits until toward the end of the piece, to wallow in it a bit much, and therein we get the first hint here of a lack of clear interpretative profile.
Skipping over to Boite a joujoux (Toy Box), Rattle early on misses some of its humor, and even also a little of its mystery at times. At the outset on the keyboard is a daughter of our good old friend Karlheinz - Majella Stockhausen-Riegelbauer. The opening here, working with very sparse textures anyway, is too dry, and yet Rattle's Berlin string department flesh out their opening sonorities quite gratuitously, as to seem a little disengaged with the rest. Compare with Michael Tilson Thomas/LSO (Sony) and you hear what you are missing here. No less true this is than with the skipping start to the first full episode, Magasin de Jouets (Toy Store - track 6) of the ballet. The harsh, hissing tremoli that follow get exaggerated. A lovely, oriental sounding cantilena on oboe that closes Debussy's orchestral scoring of the piano draft is played beautifully, but set up and accompanied too drily. A little hard to tell that Debussy did not orchestrate the rest, Andre Caplet succeeded so well.
Reminiscence of Golliwog's Cakewalk starts off a bit stiff, but then at full tilt, the Berlin Phil begins a little later to get into the full swing of things. Contrast between waltz and closing tarantella rhythm close is minimized by taking the waltz (first full solo for the doll) a little too quickly, and Rattle also note-spins the closing part of this episode, even the Petrouchka-like clumsy motions of Polichinelle (?) that interrupt the chase. Rattle loses, instead of gaining character by being a little too brusque and abrupt with some of this music. Further enhancing the impression that he wants to apologize somewhat for this music, he will backphrase a bit much on retiring sections of this. There is more fun to be had here, and that impression continues a little into the next episode. Brusque muted trumpets and percussion under Soldier's Chorus (Gounod's Faust) promises a little loosening up for Rattle, though a bit late. The following chase episode really goes well, on chordal progressions momentarily that could have been lifted out of Jeux.
Rattle also knows that some very plaintive writing is just right around the corner, and he capitalizes on this fact very well, including the almost Pelleas-derived intro to track eight (La Bergerie a voudre), where the doll attends lovingly to her pea shot injured amour from battle (upward clarinet crocodile tears in affectionate parody, accompanying the lamenting line of sicilienne on flute), recalling Melisande's attendance to a horse-tossed Golaud (with groans from double basses and bassoons here in the ballet) in Act Two of the opera. The Berlin Phil's english horn (credits?), a cappella, soulfully plays out its pentatonic mode song, bringing out its Eastern quality perhaps a little more than his competition on MTT (Sony).
The brass greatly enjoy the chutzpah of "Apres fortune faite", as trio of oboes with piano their harsh musette toward the close of previous episode. The doll, seemingly past retirement age, cackles out her signature tune just capably enough, on oboe, and past a little shimmer across the strings and recall of a couple earlier heard motifs, all comes to a nicely sharp and abrupt close. Music, yes, of a weary and ill mind and body, here was also a mind always ready to relish so many light and even a few uproariously funny moments left in his five remaining years.
Rattle, at the end of the day, has enhanced our appreciation of this piece. We would be at a loss without this new version, but for desert-island choice for this piece, Tilson Thomas (Sony) is it. Dutoit gives the music plenty of snazz and wit, but Tilson Thomas is more specific to all its character and contrasts. The probably deleted Martinon (also EMI) has not been available to me, but Ulster/Tortelier (Chandos) is a cipher, up against the three major label versions that now lead the pack, even with Rattle as third choice. Program notes for this Boite a joujoux are insufficient - also true on Dutoit and MTT.
As for La Mer, Rattle gets two movements out of three quite well. Rattle takes a measured pace through the first movement, a little too soft in recorded dynamics at outset to be audible (flaw also with the DGG Boulez), in the context of otherwise very truthful sound quality throughout this disc. The Berlin Philharmonic recall their days under Karajan, with the strings seizing on opportunities to flesh, lush out sonorities, but especially at mezzo-forte and above do not quite succeed in doing so with clear definition and overtones. (Note however how quickly they recupe themselves during the shanty-like middle section, into a gently swaying 6/8). This is especially true in the first movement, and more recall Ormandy on a very ordinary day than they do Karajan. (Steer clear of Muti on EMI - ersatz-Karajan for sure, but very dull). Atmosphere is good on Rattle, but contrasts between tempos minimized, thus much character otherwise is lost in a few passages.
Matters significantly improve for the last two movements, in which Rattle's pacing is exemplary. The character of Jeux de vagues here is constantly to the forefront, and Rattle almost hardly need to fear comparison with the best versions of this piece here - Toscanini/NBC, Ansermet (1957), Munch, Giulini (Sony), De Sabata, and also Haitink and Boulez (especially for CBS/Sony). The play between breeze and the waves is clearly evocative here, with only an occasional bulge from the strings as a distraction.
Rattle's control of his strings and also their liberation from vague ersatz-Karajan mode or glossiness through Dialogue (finale) is something at which to marvel. It also helps to reveal the quality of intellectual control that Rattle can exercise or will to do so on some occasions. This is accomplished, for instance, at the start of 'Dialogue', without the very hard, crude digging into the cellos, basses on the at times vitriolic, live Abbado/Lucerne (DGG). On reprise of the haunting appoggiaturas of `Tres calme', Rattle divides out the sonorities beautifully as though you have visible the upper reaches of the sky with that of the depths below all at once - most beautifully achieved on Toscanini/NBC at the end of Jeux de vagues, but perhaps also on Giulini as well, with Concertgebouw in top form (Sony) - first choice for those who prefer the slower, more atmospheric voyage on La Mer.
Some of the gilded, glittery sonorities for Colin Matthews's orchestration of three piano preludes here may make very good impressionism, but does not make good Debussy. Matthews may not himself be so much at fault. On close scrutiny, Berlin, especially in the strings, seems to seize on some of the wrong things to find or capitalize on in these transcriptions. Rattle also clips a few rhythms in `What the West Wind Saw' (storm prelude - Book One), misguidedly to enhance propulsion and help make the sale, so to speak, and instead does more damage. There are good moments, and all the playing is more clearly defined than was the case at the Proms last summer, but a little better coordination of efforts here could have enhanced the effect of Matthews's mostly conscientious work, albeit lower sonorities starting off the storm prelude need reinforcement.
A mixed blessing then is this new disc of Debussy from Rattle and Berlin.