17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
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Format: Audio CD
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.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
Roy U. Rojas Wahl
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Format: Audio CD
This is the one CD from Rattle and the BPO that I have been waiting for. Not since their Mahler 5th have they finally convinced like they do here.
Just listening to Emmanuel Pahud alone, during the Prelude de l'apres midi d'un faune, is worth the money. But there is so much more here. First, finally EMI seems to have listened and given this orchestra an adequate, yes actually in this case excellent, sound recording (other than in their recent Dvorak!). Second Sir Simon & the Berlin Philharmoniker: All their class, color and sensitivity comes through, yet without any loss of their famously dark sound and sonority. All the motions of the music comes are right there in La Mer, all the fragility in the Prelude, yet you always feel Rattle and Berlin Phil could give so much more, but they don't have to... It is the conterforce of both the expression of fragility (= sensitivity, freshness) and sonority (=authority) that makes this recording an event amongst many other recent Debussy recordings. They create thereby with conviction and with ease a suspense and dramatic effect that I often miss in modern recordings. There is no other orchestra in the world that can do this, with the sole exception of Salonen and LA Phil perhaps...
Do not miss this, especially if you like Debussy. Both Prelude and La Mer will be regarded as new landmark interpretations soon, and La boite joujoux as well as the orchestarted three preludes are more than worthy add-ons. I like the arrangement of Colin Matthews. Maybe he should compose himself and become a new Debussy?
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
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Format: Audio CD
One rarely finds Sir Simon's recordings on most critics' "first choice" lists in any particular repertoire, though they are also often (but not always) praiseworthy. Since leaving his "home" orchestra of Birmingham for Berlin (and recording with both Berlin and Vienna), I think (for myself, anyway), I'm getting a firmer idea of an aspect of his approach that is causing problems, as it does with this disc (and as it did, I think, with his Beethoven cycle with Vienna). I think he over-interprets. It's as if he's trying too hard. The phrasing is so considered and deliberate that, by the time it's all done, you've lost a good bit of the forward motion, as well as a firm sense for the architecture of the music. In the meantime, however, you have many individually gorgeous moments to enjoy.
Faun and La Mer are both on the slow side, but sound slower than they really are because they are so episodic. But, my, the sounds and playing are lovely. The lack of forward motion and "connectedness" probably don't hurt these pieces so much, given their familiarity. La Boite a joujoux is another story. It is a relatively rarely recorded late ballet, not orchestrated by Debussy (although he intended it for orchestra). While the sounds and playing Sir Simon draws from the orchestra are again terrific, the various sections of the music fail to cohere into a sensible and rewarding whole. Dutoit's version of La Boite (available in an excellent reduced-price Decca box) is notably more satisfying.
Colin Matthews' orchestration of 3 of Debussy's Preludes are interesting, and clever. Unlike La Boite, the Preludes were written (so far as I know) only with the piano in mind. For this listener, perhaps because of having heard the Preludes so many times on piano over many years, the pieces sound a bit strange in their orchestral guise, perhaps a bit over-the-top. They're not so wonderful and convincing that I'd rush out and buy this disc just to hear them.
In general, in fact, I wouldn't rush out and buy this disc--not as a first choice for these pieces--but the sound and the playing are of such superb quality that I'd give it high marks as an alternative Debussy disc.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Andrew R. Barnard
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Format: Audio CD
Claude Debussy is one of those composers whose music seems to evoke a world of reveries, where sophistication and charm are inextricably mixed. As the world's leading impressionist, you always expect colorful drama from him, with that ever-present sense of the ethereal. In this disc, Sir Simon Rattle gives us a performance that brings all these qualities out in an astounding way. Although the Berliners are always ravishing, they seem especially inspired here; I don't know if I've ever heard another disc where the sheer glory of the orchestral sound was this good. For me, that's enough to make this disc worth having. But as if though that's not enough, Rattle has made convincing music at the podium, pulling out amazing details from his orchestra and letting them show off their mightiness and passion. I don't hear any of the fussiness some reviewers have complained about--Rattle says a lot, to be sure, but he doesn't keep the music from coming unburdened to the surface.
This disc starts out with the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, which stars the Berliners' own Emmanuel Pahud on the flute. Needless to say, Pahud is stunning on the flute. But the rest of the Berliners are almost equally stunning. Rattle makes this piece incredibly beautiful, with his other first desk soloists shining with their virtuosic powers. Everything is done so perfectly that it is almost unreal; yet our musicians unleash a tremendous amount of love and affection--it's not cerebral.
The La Mer that follows fares even better. Comparing this account to Boulez's account with the Cleveland Orchestra on DG, I was quite surprised by how much better Rattle was than Boulez, who is easily the greatest French conductor alive. I can't believe I'm saying this, but Rattle is far more impressionistic than the famed Frenchman. Rattle seems to have captured the essence of the ocean; it's as if though you can feel the foamy water gently splashing over your sand-covered feet. But, of course, there's much more to the ocean than beauty--you want the power of the splashing waves. Rattle gives that too. I remember the first time I listened to his reading of the ending of the last movement. It was so thrilling that I had to try hard not to shout at the top of my lungs, so wonderful it was. Rattle contrasts the two extremes of the ocean (and everything in between) in a way that will leave you breathless.
La Boîte à Joujoux is given a reading that conjures images of a playful toy. Generally, Rattle chooses sophistication and wit over playfulness. Some reviewers complain about this, but I found what Rattle does have to say to be a joy from start to finish. One doesn't need to create a childish sound in order to be successful in this piece (although you certainly could). As in the La Mer, Rattle is wonderfully impressionistic, with a feel for the color and texture of the music. Never is there an uninteresting moment. The Berliners play with absolute finesse and clarity of tone that can only add to the enjoyment of the work.
Other reviewers have questioned the point of Colin Matthew's arrangements of selections from Debussy's Preludes. That's fair. The arrangements are somewhat problematic; they end up sounding just as much like Matthew's own Pluto as Debussy. It's the 2nd arrangement, Feuilles mortes, which comes across the best, although I still don't know why EMI couldn't have stuck an actual Debussy work on in its place. Nonetheless, while most orchestras would have a nightmare trying to master the technical challenges in these arrangements, with the Berliners and Rattle, it's a job made effortless. I certainly can't say anything bad about the actual performance.
I would strongly recommend this disc to anyone, as it features superb performances of some of Debussy's greatest works. EMI's sound quality is impeccable, making for another blessing.
P.S. February 2012: It's been a few months and many listens since I initially reviewed this album. It's worn very well with me. In fact, I'm much more enthusiastic now than I was when I first heard it. The Faun, which I first thought was good, now strikes me as simply outstanding, perhaps more nuanced than anything else I've ever heard yet still very spontaneous. Elsewhere reviewer Santa Fe Listener, who's critical of Rattle's Faun here, told me he found more to love after a second listen. Perhaps you need to listen several times before the glory of this disc hits you. It's certainly worth it.
6 of 9 people found the following review helpful
David H. Spence
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Format: Audio CD
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.