Debussy: La Mer / Ravel: Ma Mère l’Oye - Manacorda
Challenge Classics CC 72757
Classical - Orchestral
Debussy: La Mer
Ravel: Ma Mère l’Oye
Het Gelders Orkest
Antonello Manacorda (conductor)
The bulk of La mer was composed during a visit to Burgundy – a long way from the nearest sea – although the work was completed in the English seaside town of Eastbourne. The composer himself argued that his inspiration was drawn from a range of ocean view paintings and from literature in which the sea played a major part. Debussy described the work as 'Three symphonic sketches for orchestra' (Trois esquisses symphoniques pour orchestre), thus avoiding the term 'symphony', which would have imposed a specific musical structure, as well as the expression 'symphonic poem', which would imply that the music was descriptive in nature. 'Sketches' was a wise choice, precisely because it neatly conveys that the music is meant to do no more than provide an impression.
Whereas Debussy occupied himself spontaneously and intuitively with looking for new sounds, Ravel placed much more emphasis on the effect that the sounds could have in the context of a musical story.
One of these dazzling impressionist tales was the suite Mother Goose (Ma mère l’Oye). Between 1908 and 1910, he wrote a simple suite of piano pieces for four hands for the children of some friends, inspired by a few fairy tales that he took in part from the Tales of Mother Goose by Charles Perrault. Albeit the music was not technically difficult, the subtlety of the sound and melodies imbued the work with extreme refinement. This became clearly evident when he subsequently arranged to work for orchestra, refining the music even further with the larger orchestral sound palette. Ravel used this orchestral version in 1912 for a ballet.
Review by Adrian Quanjer - December 8, 2017
It took me a while to find out that ‘Het Gelders Orkest’ and the ‘Arnhem Philharmonic’ are one and the same orchestra. One is for local, Dutch consumption (the orchestra of Gelderland Province, of which Arnhem is the capital) and the other for the International market. The Arnhem Philharmonic has been on the Exton/Octavia pay roll for some time, producing some first rate recordings with the Austrian conductor Martin Sieghart at the helm, like Mahler’s ‘Das Lied von der Erde’: Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde - Stotijn/Litaker/Sieghart, and Symphony No. 10: Mahler: Symphony No. 10 - Sieghart.
For financial and possibly contractual reasons it looks as though independent quality labels often have little choice but to seek out so called second tier orchestras. Contrary to what some may think, I feel that such is a wise and very welcome move indeed. It has, by all evidence, positively contributed to widening our musical scope: Just like contracting young and coming talent, many have discovered that these ‘provincial’ orchestras are more than once of a surprisingly high standard. Based on the reviews above, the Arnhem Philharmonic clearly falls in that category. And now that we know that Het Gelders Orkest is the same, we may expect something good.
This is the orchestra’s third release on the Challenge Classic label, two of which with their present chief conductor, the Italian Antonello Manacorda. He has an opera background, but his symphonic credentials have recently clearly been established by a Schubert Symphony cycle for Sony Classical with his other orchestra, the Kammerakademie Potsdam, which obtained the coveted German ECHO Klassik in 2015.
There is no recorded shortage of Debussy’s La Mer nor of Ravel’s Ma Mère l’Oye, both eminent representatives of the French impressionist era. In Debussy he faces strong competition from Stéphane Denève on Chandos; as for Ravel, I may recall that Graham Williams raved about Carlo Rizzi’s reading on Tacet. Any newcomer should therefore bring something special. For a start, Manacorda brings something what none of the others have: both ‘unmissables’ of the French impressionist literature on one disc. Though that may already be half the battle, the other half is of course far more important.
With his recording of three cantatas of Berlioz, also for Challenge Classics: Berlioz: La Captive, La mort de Cléopâtre & Herminie - Larsson / Manacorda Manacorda has put himself and his orchestra firmly on the map with a particularly well developed feeling for French music. Here, too, he draws a typical French sound from the orchestra. Whereas Debussy’s La Mer comes off most satisfactorily, the top prize must nonetheless go to a wonderful reading of Ravel’s Ma Mere l’Oye. Originally composed for the piano, Ravel arranged it for orchestra, using, as befits a seasoned and absolute top arranger (compare Pictures at an Exhibition) the full array of instruments available in any modern symphony orchestra to shade and colour all five tableaux (paintings) of this children’s tale according to each subject matter.
However, and perhaps not surprising seen his opera background, Manacorda manages to put an extra layer of phantasy over that, like an additional glazing over a 17th century painting by Rembrandt, putting all colours and shades in a new perspective, lending it an extra and highly spirited dimension. The orchestra follows suit in every detail. (I’m not sure to what extent it has had any special effect, but the string section of Het Gelders Orkest consists for 2/3 of female players). Blind folded and not knowing who’s playing one could easily believe listening to any of the best French orchestras. Take this as a compliment!
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