Debussy: Orchestral Works Vol 1 - Prélude À L'Après-Midi D'Un Faune, La Mer / Märkl, Lyon NO

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There are times when a disk drops through my letterbox and, after tearing the wrapping off the parcel, I look at the CD and despair, wondering do we really need yet another, in this case, recording of Debussy’s popular orchestral works? Then I play the disk and am pleasantly surprised. So it is with this disk. Märkl’s up against very stiff competition – Ansermet, Barbirolli, Boulez and Martinon to name but a few – but he’s his own man and gives us his own view of the music.

The Prélude is very well done. The solo flute is suitably sensuous, and is ably complemented by the solo oboe. Also, I have never heard the two solo violins, at the end, sound quite as winsome as they do here. The big tune in the middle is allowed to expand as it should and the delicate final pages, with slightly too reticent antique cymbals, is well controlled.

La Mer is almost as fine a performance. Starting very mysteriously, Märkl builds up the tension until the music bursts forth with animation. It’s a fine achievement. However, when the second part of the first movement begins, with cellos in eight parts, it’s too reticent and lacks the momentum required to push the music forwards. When Satie first heard this movement, From Dawn to Midday on the Sea, he quipped that he especially enjoyed the bit at a quarter to eleven. Strange as this may seem I think I know the moment he means – at four bars after rehearsal number 13 there is a static section where cor anglais and two solo cellos play a long breathed theme over sustained chords, it’s a magical moment which prepares us for the build up to the climactic final bars. Märkl makes these few bars quite magical and the calm is quite stunning. The coda is well built but the final three chords – which should beat us about the head with their power – fail to completely satisfy. The scherzo, Play of the Waves, is too heavy handed and the important colouristic glockenspiel part all but inaudible. The tension and suspense of the final movement, Dialogue between the Wind and the Sea, is very well done. The climaxes are well developed and the changes of mood and tempo very well handled. There is one strange moment – at rehearsal number 53 the horns play a triplet, followed, in the next bar, by two minim chords. In this recording we are treated to an extra triplet chord! I’ve played this moment several times, thinking my ears were deceiving me, but no, it’s there, an extra triplet beat. As it’s an exact repeat of what they played six bars earlier I’m mystified by what happens. Why is this extra chord there and what is the purpose? I doubt it’s an editing error so the conductor must have heard it as the horns played the passage. Curiouser and curiouser. Better news is that four bars after rehearsal number 59, under the big chords for winds and strings, Märkl plays the brass fanfares which, more often than not, are ignored by conductors as not being in a real Debussy style. Perhaps they are somewhat unsubtle for Debussy, and for this moment, but without them the music suddenly stops dead, it seems empty, something has to be played there and if these fanfares are all we have then we have to have them. It’s a good performance but it lacks that final insight, that ultimate injection of energy which makes the Hallé/Barbirolli recording so memorable and compelling.

Jeux is one of Debussy’s most elusive scores (it was his last orchestral work). It’s a ballet which concerns a lost tennis ball and a boy and two girls who look for it, as they play hide and seek, try to catch one another, quarrel and sulk without cause. Their games are interrupted when another tennis ball is mischievously thrown in by an unknown hand which surprises and alarms them and they disappear into the nocturnal depths of the garden. The story isn’t important. Debussy’s music is. It receives an excellent performance here – Märkl fully understands what is going on in the music and leads his players through the myriad tempo changes, keeps the ever changing orchestral colouring alive and generally makes clear music which so often sounds confused and muddled. You’d be hard pressed to find a finer performance on disk.

André Caplet was a close friend of Debussy and worked on the orchestration of the latter’s incidental music for Gabriele D’Annunzio’s play Le Martyre de Saint-Sébastien and the ballet La Boîte à joujou. He also made two, superb, reductions for two pianos, four hands and six hands, of La Mer, and made orchestral transcriptions of several piano works. Children’s Corner is a delightful six movement suite for solo piano; it’s light hearted, full of fun and several of the movements have become popular independently of the suite – The Little Shepherd and Golliwog’s Cake-walk in particular. Caplet’s orchestration has always struck me as being rather heavy handed – odd for so skilful an orchestrator – but here he has met his match with perfect piano music which does not lend itself to orchestration. Märkl does his best but, ultimately, it’s still too heavy and much of the humour is lost.

Apart from Jeux, which is superb, I would not put these performances of La Mer and the Prélude ahead of other recordings which are currently available - those conductors listed above - but they are very serviceable and if you’re on a tight budget, or just wanting to dip your toes in the Debussian water for the first time, then at the bargain price you’ll get much from these atmospheric readings.

-- Bob Briggs, MusicWeb International

Product Description:

  • Release Date: May 27, 2008

  • Catalog Number: 8570759

  • UPC: 747313075973

  • Label: Naxos

  • Period: 20th Century

  • Composer: Claude Debussy

  • Conductor: Jun Märkl

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Lyon National Orchestra