De­bussy, just the way he’d have wanted


The Daily Telegraph - Review - - THE CRITICAL LIST - By Ivan Hewett

Les Siè­cles, cond François-Xavier Roth

Har­mo­nia Mundi

No record com­pany has taken the cen­te­nary of Claude De­bussy’s death more se­ri­ously than Har­mo­nia Mundi, which has pro­duced a whole slew of record­ings across this year. Sev­eral of them are per­formed on in­stru­ments that were cur­rent in De­bussy’s own life­time, in­clud­ing this fi­nal re­lease, which con­tains three of his ma­jor or­ches­tral works, on CD and DVD. They’re per­formed by Les Siè­cles, an orches­tra founded in 2003 by French con­duc­tor François-Xavier Roth to recre­ate the sound-world of past cen­turies, from the baroque era on­wards.

Some might say this is tak­ing the idea of “his­tor­i­cally in­formed per­for­mance” a bit too far. After all, the orches­tra had set­tled into its mod­ern for­ma­tion by the late 19th cen­tury, and the in­stru­ments them­selves seem hardly dif­fer­ent tech­no­log­i­cally from the in­stru­ments we know to­day. Isn’t it just a mar­ket­ing ploy, to tell us that the harpist is us­ing an in­stru­ment made by Pleyel in 1914, and the bas­soons were all made by the well-known firm of Buf­fetCram­pon from 1900 to 1920?

One only has to lis­ten to a few bars of the im­mor­tal Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune to re­alise it’s more than that. The record­ing won’t give you the au­ral shock of a baroque horn or a clat­ter­ing clas­si­cal-era ket­tle­drum. But there’s a dis­tinct per­son­al­ity in the sound. French bas­soons of that era sound more fruity and plan­gent than mod­ern ones and the horns are softer-grained – which makes a huge dif­fer­ence at key mo­ments in the bal­let Jeux, which is based on that very “mod­ern” thing, a game of ten­nis.

None of this would mat­ter, if the per­for­mances did not have the light­ning flex­i­bil­ity and sug­ges­tive­ness that De­bussy wanted. The shift­ing greys of Nuages are beau­ti­fully caught, and thanks to the fe­male voices of the choir Les Cris de Paris the aqueous depths of Sirènes seem more than usu­ally se­duc­tive. Only the frenzy of Fêtes seems a lit­tle muted, but the over­all ef­fect of this very fine “his­tor­i­cal” record­ing is of a dif­fer­ent tonal­ity, a lovely golden-brown patina.

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