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Debussy: Nocturnes, La Mer / Celibidache, Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra

Release Date: 06/23/2010 
Label:  Deutsche Grammophon   Catalog #: 453195  
Composer:  Claude Debussy
Conductor:  Sergiu Celibidache
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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This CD is reissued by ArkivMusic.

Notes and Editorial Reviews

I was surprised to see this set upon its arrival, since I gave Celibidache's EMI Tchaikovsky symphonies such a rude reception (21:6). I had speculated in that review, however, that the maestro's concern with texture over tempo might work for Debussy, so . . . voilà. In order to give these performances a fair audition, I dispensed with any preparatory listening for comparison, and concentrated on hearing the music in Celibidache's context alone. Though neither notes nor packaging specify, these are obviously live recordings, from February 1973 (Alborada) to November 1980 (Nocturnes), made mostly in Stuttgart.

"Nuages" (in the Nocturnes), at Celibidache's deliberate tempo, becomes a dirge, imbued with
Read more melancholy until those wonderful bass notes offer their reassurance. There is gravitas here that transforms the entire piece. The winds' statements now seem more meaningful, and the English horn is especially eloquent (and beautifully played). The contrast between weightlessness, of time suspended, in the strings, and the timely statements of the winds, is heightened—and the Stuttgart players manage prodigies of precision at this tempo. "Fêtes" is wonderfully contrasted—within the context of the overall timings, this piece emerges as quite animated and playful. The martial character of the middle section is evoked as a distant army-band approaches, and then explodes into view.

The opening of "Sirènes" is all sunlight playing on the waves. The women of the SWR Vocal Ensemble are very prominent, not relegated to the misty background as in some recordings. Yet the dynamic variety of their entrances, and their antiphonal deployment, effectively create the impression of distance. The variety of shading within the main tempo again deepens the impact of what can be ephemeral, merely pretty music: There is regret as well as enticement in these siren calls.

While a technician like Boulez can use precision to free Debussy from the Impressionistic haze, Celibidache uses extremely deliberate tempos to give weight or emphasis to each strand of the musical fabric. The booklet suggests that "the complexity of notes played and their epiphenomena" tended to determine Celibidache's tempos, but I decided to ignore all that; for me, for whatever reasons, he presents one of the most beautifully moving performances of the Nocturnes on disc. It goes without saying that this kind of musical concentration must be matched by the orchestra. The Stuttgart players must have been under the spell—they sound superb. The recorded sound—1980 analog—is full, deep, and rich.

La Mer opens with almost inaudible timpani and a loud harp by contrast (the audience, too, is loud—often distractingly so). The recorded balance (from 1977) isn't as precise as for the Nocturnes, and the performance is somewhat compromised by a harsh surface glare and lack of depth to the sound. But the same attention to timbrai differentiation is operating here: The famous cello part-writing is very clear, producing waves of almost Wagnerian character (the extremely slow tempo helps give the impression that we're closer to the Rhine than to the sea). The strings in general respond to this kind of highlighting. The first movement is capped by a prolonged orgy of sound that is still carefully controlled.

As with "Fêtes," the contrasting animation of "Jeux de vagues" is carefully cultivated, and even the little-noticed percussion are effectively audible. The various rhythmic cells are nicely differentiated, so one is unaware of tempo per se. The ominous quality of the opening of the "Dialogue" is evoked through dynamic shading—the tam-tam is almost inaudible, but you feel it just the same. And, once again, the exploitation of contrasting tempos works well: The finale positively sprints to the end. In sum, while the timings indicate that this is a slow La Mer, Celibidache's ability to evoke the color and dynamism of this masterpiece transcends his tempo choices.

...I was much more impressed with these performances than I dared to hope. Rather than tolerating eccentric tempos and enduring enervating performances, I found myself increasingly engrossed by this program. Devotees of this conductor, and the rest of us, will find much to treasure here.

-- Christopher Abbot, FANFARE [11/2000]
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Works on This Recording

Nocturnes (3) for Orchestra by Claude Debussy
Conductor:  Sergiu Celibidache
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1897-1899; France 
La mer by Claude Debussy
Conductor:  Sergiu Celibidache
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1903-1905; France 

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