Album review: Insightful Debussy and Ravel with François-Xavier Roth and the LSO

When it comes to French music, the London Symphony Orchestra is one of the top ensembles around. The roots of the tradition run deep, thriving in recent years under Sir Colin Davis’s peerless readings of the Berlioz oeuvre and Sir Simon Rattle’s fabulous takes on the repertoire, including the tremendous 2016 Debussy Pelléas et Mélisande (1893-1902), to point out just one example. 

Joining the two esteemed Britons, François-Xavier Roth, the Principal Guest Conductor of the LSO since September 2017, has cherished the French repertoire at the Barbican on several occasions during his tenure, including a three-concert series, commemorating the centenary of Debussy’s passing in 2018. 

The first of these concerts, performed on 21 January 2018 under the title The Young Debussy, featured the UK premiere of the long-lost Première Suite (1883), alongside the music of Lalo, Massenet and Wagner. Released on video in May 2019 by LSO live, the concert was a case in point of inspired programming, combined with top-class music-making.

An eagerly-awaited follow-up, the new LSO Live SACD combines further Debussy performances from those 2018 concerts with an astounding Rapsodie espagnole (1907) from an all-Ravel programme staged in April 2019 at the Barbican. 

Although the new disc focuses on well-known repertoire, the album is nevertheless something very special, thanks to the superlative performances. Well served by the admirable LSO Live engineering and SACD sonics, the new release is yet another worthy addition to the LSO’s unmatched discography. 

The main piece on the album is La mer (1903-05), or Three symphonic sketches, asDebussy chose to subtitle his exquisite orchestral score. Recorded in conjunction with the final concert in the LSO and Roth series in March 2018, La mer was coupled with the works of Stravinsky, Bartók and Boulez as well as the world premiere of Ewan Campbell’s Frail Skies (2017) at the Barbican. 

Debussy began sketching La mer in August 1903 and completed the score on 5 March 1905. The first performance took place in Paris on October 15, with Camille Chevillard conducting the Concerts Lamoureux. Two years later, Debussy accepted Sir Edgar Speyer’s invitation to conduct the English premiere with the Queen’s Hall Orchestra. 

Thus La mer was first heard in London on Saturday 1 February 1908, in an afternoon concert at the Queen’s Hall, with the composer on the podium. Not a trained conductor, Debussy felt ”ill before, during and after” when standing in front of an orchestra, as the composer later described his public appearances to his friend Alfredo Casella.  

An uneasy affair for Debussy, the London premiere must have been quite a discovery for the orchestra and the Queen’s Hall audience alike. The immense popularity of La mer today obscures the fact that back in 1908, the score was quite unlike anything heard in a concert hall. 

Alfred Bruneau’s liner notes for the Queen’s Hall performance described the unique nature of Debussy’s music by stating ”…themes there are none in the habitual sense of the word; but harmonies and rhythms suffice for translating most deliciously and originally the thoughts of the composer.” 

In addition to Debussy’s unusual approach to the musical fabric, the concept of symphonic sketch must have been a baffling one to the early twentieth century listener. Renouncing straightforward allusions to programmatic music, Debussy was, in fact, re-inventing the symphonic form. 

In regard to his contemporaries, Debussy’s formal thinking comes closer to Sibelius than Mahler, in the quest to rethink the symphonic development of the musical material. Most evident in the central movement Jeux de vagues, Debussy’s concept for La mer marks a departure from the Austro-German tradition, in favor of an ever-transforming musical form. 

In similar vein, the outer movements reject the sonata form, while retaining the symphonic dramaturgy. Debussy’s musical material is highly evocative of the waves, surging and rippling, woven into the whirling wind, all unfolding under skies clad in both sunlight and nocturnal hue.  

Neither symphony nor symphonic poem, Debussy ventured into an uncharted territory with La mer, gazing into the horizon of a new century. Doing so, he synthesized aspects from his earlier music, Prelude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1892-94), Pelléas et Mélisande and Nocturnes (1897-99) into a fully-fledged symphonic study, echoed throughout the music to come. 

With great many wonderful recordings out there, including ones by Boulez, Rattle, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Claudio Abbado, and not forgetting Roth’s own 2012 period-instrument performance with Les Siècles, the bar is set quite high for a new recorded take to really stand out. 

Principal Quest Condutor François-Xavier Roth at the helm of the London Symphony Orchestra. © Doug Peters/LSO

Interestingly, Roth and the LSO stand out not by seeking a revolutionary approach, but simply by delivering an insightful and remarkably detailed, straightforward performance. As ever with Roth, the phrasing is eloquent and lively, transforming musical ideas into sounding entities with irresistible naturalness, yielding to a luminous whole. 

The solid architecture of the performance becomes more and more convincing upon each hearing. In addition, with each go, there are new details to be found amid those radiant orchestral textures. The LSO is at its finest here, merging clarity and warmth into the most enchanting sonic fabric, beautifully captured on disc by the LSO Live team. 

The first movement, De l’aube à midi sur la mer, lives up to its title. Emerging from the ethereal hue of a sustained timpani roll, gently rocking harps and a pianissimo murmur of the muted strings, the LSO and Roth sound out the rays of the first light with riveting beauty. 

In the course of eight and a half minutes, the musical daybreak is transformed into radiant glow of the midday, clad in extraordinary colours, engulfed in nuanced detail. With Roth, the contiguous pulse, passing on to one instrumental group to another as the music unveils, forms the fundament of the invigorating performance. 

The incessant flow of waves in the second movement, realized in the score with ever-permuting solo lines, is brought to life with gorgeous input from the LSO musicians, both as soloists and ensemble, guided by Roth’s impeccable sense of Debussy’s sonic architecture. 

The closing Dialogue du vent et de la mer,marked animé et tumultueux in the score, is given an absolutely splendid account by the LSO with Roth. Both symphonic and vividly dramatic, the closing movement yields to a compelling musical synthesis, aptly summing up the many virtues of the inspired performance. 

Like La mer, our familiarity with the score of Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, thanks to numerous memorable performances and recordings, tends to overshadow its radicalism. Hailed as ”a miracle of proportion, balance and transparency” by Boulez, the radicalism of Faune lies in its subtlety, both in terms of expression and texture. 

As described by Bruneau in his Queen’s Hall liner notes, ”In the proud isolation in which he enwraps himself, M. Debussy seems to aim at expressing, not the eternal passions of the world which he shuns, but the fleeting impressions of the dreams which he seeks.” 

First performed on 22 December 1894 under Gustave Doret, the premiere was enthusiastically received by Stéphane Mallarmé, whose poem provided the initial inspiration for Debussy to compose the music. According to Mallarmé, the score was ”not in discord with my text, except that your longing and clarity extend beyond that in my text with finesse, with anticipation, with grandeur.”

Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune was first heard in London ten years after its premiere, with Sir Henry Wood conducting the Queen’s Hall Orchestra at a Promenade Concert on 20 August. In 1908, Debussy himself conducted Faune at Queens Hall, alongside the London premiere of La mer

The discography of Faune is of course way too wide to be discussed in detail here. It comes no surprise, that the same roster of conductors mentioned in conjunction with La mer, appear at the top of the catalogue for Faune too.  

The LSO and François-Xavier Roth onstage at the Barbican. © Doug Peters/LSO

The performance recorded here comes from an all-Debussy programme by Roth and the LSO, performed at the Barbican on 25 January 2018, under the title of Essential Debussy and featuring Nocturnes, Jeux (1912-13) and Fantaisie (1889-90) for piano and orchestra, with Cédric Tiberghien, alongside Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune.

Incidentally, the very same programme, sans Fantaisie, was recorded by Roth and Les Siècles for Harmonia Mundi and released in 2018. The two takes on Faune, one with period instruments and the other with their present-day LSO counterparts, make a fascinating pair, both excellent in their own terms. 

The LSO performance is slightly more spacious, clocking at 9:27 in contrast to 8:58 of Les Siècles, with the dynamic scale being also somewhat more extended on the LSO Live account. As one would assume, the most noble differences deal with texture, with the orchestral fabric clad either in the warm glow of period instruments or in the astounding clarity of the LSO. 

On both albums, the opening flute solo, ravishingly played by Marion Ralincourt and Gareth Davies, respectively, comes off with otherworldly enchantment, setting the stage for an orchestral dreamscape par excellence. 

Following his four-bar solo, Davies hands the solo line over to the LSO principal horn, resulting in one of the finest transitions I’ve encountered on disc. As Faune unfolds, the principal players of the LSO winds each have their moments to shine, under Roth’s marvellously balanced accompaniment.  

As with La mer, the LSO performance of Faune reveals myriad of fine detail, often obscured either by less than ideal balancing or post-production. Beautifully paced, the recording is a joyful account of orchestral dreamscapes. 

The opening piece of the album, Maurice Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole, is captured on disc in conjunction with the 25 April 2019 Barbican concert. Featuring three ”Spanish” works by Ravel, Rapsodie, Boléro (1928) and the one-act opera L’heure espagnole (1907-11), the concert was a case in point of spot-on programming and top-class music-making. 

On a personal note, Rapsodie espagnole was my introduction to Ravel, via the mid-seventies Deutsche Grammophon recording by Boston Symphony Orchestra and Seiji Ozawa, a performance I still revere and cherish. 

Premiered by Orchestre des Concerts Colonne under Édouard Colonne at the Théâtre du Châtelet on 15 March 1908, to a critical acclaim, Rapsodie espagnole was first heard in London at the 1909 Proms, conducted by Sir Henry Wood. 

In the LSO discography, there are several takes on the score, including a 1961 recording under Pierre Monteux, a 1986 account with Claudio Abbado a 1989 performance with Michael Tilson Thomas and a 1999 coupling with L’heure espagnole under André Previn, to point out some notable entries. 

The new recording with Roth is the first account of Rapsodie espagnole on LSO Live. Maintaining the stupendous quality of the Rattle-led video release recorded in 2016, the current album is another milestone in the LSO’s top-class Ravel catalogue. 

The four-movement, fifteen-minute rhapsody opens in the nocturnal garden of Prélude à la nuit, with its spell-like descending four-note figure conjuring a musical realm of sensual allure. The four-note motive reappears throughout the score, save the Habanera third movement, an orchestral rendition of a 1895 two-piano piece. 

Concluding with the festive splendor of Feria, Rapsodie espagnole is a feast of orchestral colour, embraced wholeheartedly by the LSO and Roth. A performance of joy and sonorous magic, the recording is rooted in riveting inspiration. 

Each of the four movements bear sonic identities of their own, be it the velvety strings of the Prélude, marvellously coloured by the winds, or the upbeat, percussive textures of the Malagueña, not to mention the cat-like tiptoe Habanera and the eruptive Feria

François-Xavier Roth conducting the LSO at the Barbican. © Doug Peters/LSO

Following the three outstanding Ravel volumes by Roth and Les Siècles recorded for Harmonia Mundi, the LSO account of Rapsodie espagnole maintains the first-rate playing, combined with wonderful musical insight. 

Profoundly delighted by the new release, one hopes that further Roth-led forays into the realms of Debussy and Ravel will be included in the LSO Live catalogue as soon as possible. 

London Symphony Orchestra

François-Xavier Roth, conductor

Maurice Ravel: Rapsodie espagnole (1907) for orchestra

Claude Debussy: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1892-94) for orchestra

Claude Debussy: La mer (1903-05) – Three symphonic sketches for orchestra

Recorded at the Barbican Centre, London, January & March 2018 (Debussy) and April 2019 (Ravel) 

LSO Live LSO0821 (2020), 1 SACD

© Jari Kallio 

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