Debussy
Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune
La mer – three symphonic sketches
Jeux – poème dansé
London Symphony Orchestra
Valery Gergiev

Recorded 12 & 19 May 2010 (Faune), 13 & 18 December 2009 (Jeux) and 20 & 24 September 2009 in Barbican Hall, London
CD No: LSO LIVE LSO0692
Duration: 56 minutes
Reviewed: March 2011
A ‘magic flute’ (courtesy of Gareth Davies) opens Faune and this Debussy collection, the playing from the LSO tender and suggestive, the harp rippling magically, the music made hypnotic in its fluctuations and even a touch surreal, Valery Gergiev avoiding stasis and keeping the music potent. Great! And beautifully recorded, too.
Ideally Jeux should follow (from one elusive masterpiece to another), but La mer (also music of genius but which would have been suitably invigorating to close the disc) comes next, mysterious enough in its opening measures but, at times, curiously failing to engage, as if the LSO was collectively on autopilot despite some precise, well-gauged and colourful playing. Maybe it’s the relative remoteness of the recording that distances some of the playing in a way that doesn’t happen in the Barbican Hall (and which, in quieter passages, any increases in amplifier volume cannot rectify; nevertheless fortissimos can be too overwhelming for this music, the microphones honing in for the ‘big’ moments). Gergiev is more engaged with the score’s dramatic pages; and, although he obtains unfailingly responsive playing, there is a peculiar lack of meaningful incident and involvement. Those ‘big’ moments (the end of the first movement, when midday is reached, for example) develop greater thrall, if too much aural brightness, and at this particular point more of the gong would have been welcome. The nimbleness required for ‘Play of the Waves’ is there in spades, flecks of lights on the water and the interaction of currents vividly conveyed, yet it is not until we are in choppier waters that the performance, once again, develops requisite tension. The finale, ‘Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea’, responds best to the full-on approach, a dominance of cymbal colour aside, and there is much that is excitingly bracing here, even if one can sense it was probably too loud in the hall. Gergiev omits the brass fanfares (here ‘missing’ between 6’49” and 7’01”), which is fair enough given their ad lib status, if regrettable. Others will welcome this textural exclusion; one of those debating points that will never be resolved. For La mer, such as Ansermet (Decca, four recordings), Désormière (Supraphon/Czech Philharmonic), Fournet (also Supraphon/Czech Phil) and Leonard Slatkin (Telarc) continue to take the honours
Jeux returns us to the enchanted world of Faune. The detailing here is vivid and lucid (albeit trumpets are rather edgy in fortissimos and too dominating at times). Yet with well-judged tempos and with an expressive freedom, this is quite a moreish performances, the music rustles, fluctuates and animates – the use of antiphonal violins opens things up – and enjoys expectant expression; all captured vibrantly by a recording that returns us to the tangibility with which Faune was captured. It’s not always the subtlest account, overly brilliant and too public at times, when really it should be mysterious and confidential throughout its course; yet it is alluring and this performance exerts a strange fascination and has already notched up several listens – with a different listener reaction each time, mostly positive. Given the ballet’s storyline is a game of tennis, one is inclined to think that it is match-point between Debussy and Gergiev, but the conductor is serving, possibly with an ace.

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