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Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Recordngs Review: The Water is Fine

Daniele Gatti conducts Debussy.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Is this a baton I see before me? Conductor Daniele Gatti.
Photo © 2011 Sony Classical.
This new recording from Sony Classical consists of familiar repertory by Claude Debussy, played by the Orchestre National de France under the baton of their music director, Daniele Gatti.

Debussy's major orchestral works are practically required in the catalogue of any conductor aspiring to the major leagues. That means that there are a lot of bad recordings about. Mr. Gatti's effort is a rewarding one, crisply played by an orchestra that sounds very comfortable in the studio environment. 

This recording has a blossoming, blooming low end, with the deep Tristan-esque throbs of cellos and basses The atmospheric, wide-ranging acoustic centers firmly on the ONF cellos, with occasional comments from warm, rich brass and finely detailed woodwinds. The clarinet playing is a simple pleasure.

Mr. Gatti's recording opens with a lush, slow performance of the opening movement of La Mer.  lending a little more dread to the first phrases of the piece than is normally heard. When the big first climax comes, it builds slowly in a surge of horns, like a rolling wave that gathers momentum before breaking, almost gently thanks to sumptuous brass and a carefully played figure on the cymbals. 

In Dance of the Waves, Mr. Gatti conjures the playful side of Debussy's maritime score, with complex figures from the woodwinds and surges of brass and strings. This sets the stage for a final movement played with unexpected ferocity. Here, the conductor lets the elements loose with powerful playing from the ONF brass and a glowing surge of sound. This is not a sunny performance, but it is a profoundly powerful one.

Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune is the most familiar piece on this disc, with its rich depictions of dappled forest light and softly waving leaves in the harps and violins. Woodwinds caper against this backdrop nimby, with great clarity of texture. This is not the most memorable recording of this famous piece, but a worthy addition to the catalogue.

The set ends with all five parts of Images, a set of tone poems that includes the three movements of Iberia, as a suite-within-a-suite. Here, the orchestral detail is rich and evocative, with propulsive rhythms underpinned by pizzicato strings, castanets and the snare drum. Mr. Gatti paints Debussy's tonal pictures with loving detail from the atmospheric night music to the sound of a gypsy fiddle. The final Gigue ends the disc on a note of folk-like celebration.

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