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Claude Debussy La Mer, Preludes Review

Album. Released 2007.  

BBC Review

Let’s hope it won’t be long before we can hear the second half of the series.

Andrew McGregor 2007

At first glance this is all about La Mer…Debussy’s sea symphony, the main draw, and given top billing over orchestrations of a dozen of the composer’s piano Preludes. So let’s approach it that way, because immediately a British orchestra based in Manchester is going to have problems getting itself taken seriously in La Mer alongside classic accounts from Berlin and Boston, Amsterdam or Chicago.

But let’s not forget that Debussy’s inspiration was not the mighty Pacific or balmy Mediterranean, but the English Channel outside his hotel in Eastbourne – so if Mark Elder and his Hallé musicians seem a degree-or-two cooler than some of the competition, if the depths are darker, and if the morning sun takes a while to break through the overcast sky, then perhaps that’s utterly authentic. But it’s also further evidence of the Hallé’s renewal under Elder: a performance that glitters with luminous detail, and some really refined playing…slightly let down by the ragged final chord. So, a La Mer to be proud of, but if your experience mirrors mine, it’s what follows that will make you glad you put your hand in your pocket for this recording.

The Hallé asked composer Colin Matthews to furnish them with orchestral versions of Debussy’s 24 piano Preludes, and the task was completed in 2006. There are 12 here, the remaining dozen are to be released later, and the selection jumps between Book 1 and Book 2 in a way that works perfectly well, but I can’t tell you whether this is the arranger’s order or the conductor’s. It’s bold indeed to allow your orchestrations to be measured against Debussy’s great seascape; yet what a success has been achieved here. It might have been Colin Matthews the arranger dressing the piano parts in orchestral clothes borrowed from Debussy, as he does in Canopes, but elsewhere Matthews the composer makes his mark as well. He’s perfectly prepared to embellish the original, extending the melody of Brouillards, or elevating what are mere accompanying figures in the piano pieces to the status of counter-melodies or secondary themes, and then fashioning an additional transitional passage for Le vent dans la plaine.

One of the most striking interventions is one of the simplest; in La fille aux cheveux de lin Matthews sets a considerably slower tempo than Debussy does in his piano Prelude, turning it into a reflection on the original…almost as though the girl with the flaxen hair has grown up, and is gazing at a photo of her former self, the source of what she’s become. And let’s not forget Debussy’s Minstrels: buskers seen by Debussy in the streets of Eastbourne while he was writing La Mer in 1905. Matthews provides a completely re-imagined context for the Preludes, and they’re beautifully played in a recording that allows every new texture to radiate colour and detail.

So the headline may be La Mer, and a fine account it is too, but it’s the editorial to which I’ll be returning in this publication: Matthews’ thoughts on Debussy’s Preludes. Let’s hope it won’t be long before we can hear the second half of the series.

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