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Debussy: La Mer, Images - Gimeno

Debussy: La Mer, Images - Gimeno

PentaTone Classics  PTC 5186627

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral


Debussy: La Mer, Images (book II arr. Colin Matthews), 6 Épigraphes antiques (arr. Rudolf Escher) - Gimeno

Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg
Gustavo Gimeno (conductor)


Released in the year of Claude Debussy’s death centenary, this album demonstrates the exceptional harmonic and colouristic richness of his music. Centrepiece of the album is La Mer (1903-1905), a musical realization of the composer’s “sincere devotion to the sea” that revolutionized orchestral composition in the early twentieth-century. Ibéria takes the listener on a trip to Spain, whereas the Six Épigraphes antiques (1914), here performed in the orchestration of Rudolf Escher, evoke ancient Greece and Egypt. The biggest novelty on this album is Colin Matthews’ new, lush orchestration of Images. Book 1 (1901-1905), one of Debussy’s most-cherished piano works.

With this Debussy collection, the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg and its Music Director Gustavo Gimeno continue their acclaimed PENTATONE series of composer portraits that already featured monographs of Shostakovich, Bruckner, Ravel, Mahler and Stravinsky.

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Review by Mark Werlin - December 12, 2020

When we listen to an unfamiliar performance of a favorite work, do we hear the new through a template of the old, and reject what doesn’t correspond to our preconceptions? How blank is our musical tabula rasa?

Critical listening draws on years of experience, but reflexive comparisons can create a barrier to appreciating the diversity of new interpretations. In my experience, letting go of ingrained preferences is a worthwhile effort. I treasure recordings of the past, but my listening boundaries have expanded to the point where I often prefer new performances of favorite works.

Hearing the opening bars of “Iberia” on the present SACD, I immediately noticed differences in tempo and inflection from the version that is imprinted on my musical memory, Leopold Stokowski conducting the French National Radio Orchestra, recorded in 1958. Gimeno’s tempo was slower, and his phrasing seemed unduly restrained. But a comparison to “Iberia” from the 24/192 remastering of Jean Martinon’s 1974 set of Debussy orchestral works suggests that Gimeno’s interpretation is closer to the composer’s intentions than Stokowski’s; Gimeno, like Martinon, refrains from exaggeration, and allows the lines to emerge more gradually, creating a languorous mood that conveys Debussy’s received impressions, rather than first-hand knowledge, of Spanish music.

Performances of “La Mer” are as numerous as the sands in the sea. The SACD catalogue alone lists over two dozen releases divided between new recordings and analogue-era reissues. Gimeno’s performance is perhaps less dramatic than some listeners might prefer, but I find his interpretive choices illuminating. Debussy, by his own admission, had a distanced relationship to the sea; he preferred depictions in paintings and poetry to the reality of wind and waves. As the composer experienced the primeval nature of the sea through the mediating lens of art, so the conductor must reinterpret written music through his or her own lenses, and in Gimeno’s interpretation, Debussy’s diligent labors are revealed in subtle shadings and vivid inner detail. The superb audio engineering of Erdo Groot works in service of that interpretation; and in a sense, the recording and the performance are so seamlessly interwoven that the one cannot be judged separately from the other.

The path of Claude Debussy was littered with incomplete and abandoned projects (and failed personal relationships). Finishing a work was often a protracted process, to the despair of his publishers. In the latter years of his life, in the shadow of the Great War, while suffering painful treatments for the cancer that would ultimately end his life and shouldering the responsibility to provide for his often ill wife and for their young daughter, Debussy had a period of unusual productivity during which he composed a set of preludes for piano, his final three sonatas, and recast older pieces in new frameworks. An early collaboration with author Pierre Louïs, “Chansons de Bilitis”, originally conceived as a work for a small ensemble including flutes, harp and celesta, provided Debussy with the material for a new two-piano arrangement which he renamed “Six épigraphs antiques”.

Drawing on published accounts of the original work, and noting Debussy’s preference for woodwind instruments which he believed could communicate a sense of the ancient and exotic, composer Rudolf Escher undertook to write an arrangement of “Six épigraphs antiques” for a chamber ensemble of harps, oboe, flutes, piccolo, celesta, clarinets, bassoon, cellos, basses, and percussion. Escher’s 1974 arrangement is expertly realized by the Luxembourg players. The plaintive tone of a solo flute introduces the first of the epigraphs; oboe and harp are showcased in the second; the third incorporates elements of the Spanish themes that recur throughout Debussy’s oeuvre, inspired in no small part by his rivalry with the younger Maurice Ravel. In the fourth of the epigraphs, the harp and woodwinds intertwine like threads in a delicate tapestry. Gustavo Gimeno had prior experience of this arrangement: Andris Nelson conducted the work with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in 2013, at a time when Gimeno was an assistant conductor.

The second orchestration on this SACD from an original piano work is a premiere recording of Colin Matthews’ adaptation of Debussy’s “Images Premier Livre”. The task of transforming a Debussy work for piano into a vehicle for orchestral performance was undertaken during the composer’s lifetime by his colleagues André Caplet (Children’s Corner Suite, Clair de Lune), Henri Büsser (Printemps), and Charles Koechlin (Khamma). Matthews is a contemporary composer of considerable breadth, who, with his brother David Matthews, edited and revised Deryck Cooke’s performing edition of the Mahler 10th Symphony. Matthews’ arrangement is close in spirit to that of his predecessors; this is not a radical polemic or an exercise in deconstruction. Silken strings convey the legato piano passages while the percussion section accents the rhythmic undercurrent. Under Matthews’ pen, Debussy’s early Modernism is softly filtered through a late-Romantic screen.

Gustavo Gimeno proves to be an insightful Debussy interpreter, and through the responsive performances of the musicians of the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg, and the sumptuous DSD recording of Erdo Groot, the tone colors, textures and details so beloved of the “musicien français” are rendered vividly present. As the world awaits the conditions that allow resumption of live music performances, SACD collectors are privileged to experience such realistic-sounding recordings in the comfort and security of our listening rooms.

Copyright © 2020 Mark Werlin and HRAudio.net

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Comment by Adrian Quanjer - December 13, 2020 (1 of 4)

Great review, Mark. Not easy to capture French composers in the framework of an eloquent review.

Comment by Stephen Wright - December 21, 2020 (2 of 4)

"SACD collectors are privileged to experience such realistic-sounding recordings in the comfort and security of our listening rooms."

Ain't that the truth. One time I looked down too quickly, causing a loose lens to fall out of my prescription glasses at an Oregon Symphony concert. I fretted that I might never find it, but a kind little girl fetched it for me from under a fellow patron's seat. Another time a rude young man sitting behind me bumped his knee several times against my seat cushion. Concert halls are very threatening, dangerous places - good riddance to them.

Comment by Bruce Zeisel - December 25, 2020 (3 of 4)

"In the comfort and security ......

I don't know what Mark Werlin had in mind when he wrote that but I suspect it was referencing the danger posed by the pandemic.

Maybe Stephen Wright was speaking tongue in cheek? I hope so.

Comment by Mark Werlin - December 25, 2020 (4 of 4)

Just shows that what seemed like an innocuous comment can provoke a controversy...

While listening to the Gimeno Debussy SACD, I was feeling grateful for the privilege of enjoying music in the comfort of my home at a time when concert halls are closed due to the pandemic, and so many people are experiencing stress, upheaval and insecurity.

I think all of us are looking forward to attending concerts in person next year.