CD Label: EMI-5 58045 2 & Philips 464 697-2
This Is Getting Embarrassing
The British musical establishment has long had a tendency to throw judgment out the window when considering one of their own; and in that respect, Sir Simon Rattle is only the latest and most conspicuous example. How else does one explain the discrepancy between this conductor's reputation and his actual achievement? Last year he gave us clueless Beethoven, disappointing Mahler, dull Dvorak, and an embarrassingly bad Carmina Burina. Well you may wonder why the famously conservative Berlin Philharmonic has kept him on as its music director. Certainly there must be commercial considerations: Sir Rattle is currently a hot property; bad as they are, his releases sell (fueled in large part by the adulatory reviews of those same British critics). The orchestra may also have been hoping Sir Rattle would grow into the position. That presumption has thus far been proven wrong. Judging from this abysmal release, he still has a long way to go.
Sir Rattle has always been a high-concept conductor — everything has to have a point! But his Debussy seems positively old-fashioned. In the past, non-French conductors especially liked to present Debussy as an unashamedly romantic, if not quasi-mystical composer. Such conductors tended to sectionalize the music, to make the most of each separate "impression." Characterized by slow tempos, thickish textures and saturated colors, this approach almost invariably produced interpretations that were disjointed, turgid and overblown. (It was, of course, in contrast to this romanticized Debussy that the young Pierre Boulez's astringent performances were once considered so shocking.)
But at least Leopold Stokowski and Sir John Barbirolli, two conductors who typified that approach, performed this music with some imagination and intensity. You might well disagree with what they were doing, but you couldn't deny their conviction and daring. Sir Rattle, on the other hand, manages to be both idiosyncratic and tiresome. He may have ideas, but the problem is that he can't sustain any inner tension, any sense of emotional momentum or involvement. In fact his interpretations seem to have no inner life whatsoever. He remains a conductor who specializes in surface glitter. And so: a listless and uninvolved Prelude, a static and fussy La Mer. The two fillers would count as attractive bonuses, were they better played and not hitched to the dead weight of the two more familiar pieces.
A Solid Alternative
Happily for those in the market for a Debussy program, Philips has reissued these justly famous performances by Bernard Haitink. Listening to this disc right after Sir Rattle's was not unlike walking out of a drear November afternoon and into a bright spring morning with every leaf etched in gold. Whatever you may say about Haitink's approach to other composers — and I say that he has always been a very uneven conductor, even in his glory days with the Concertgebouw — there is no denying that he has a true affinity for the music of Claude Debussy. For one thing, Haitink's tempos are so natural, so graceful, so effortlessly right, that the music hardly seems to be conducted at all. His ability to balance transparency and warmth, so crucial in this music, is exemplary. Though Haitink can sometimes seem emotionally distant, here he is very responsive to the wide range of contrasting moods Debussy evokes; the mysterious hush that opens La Mer, the lilting playfulness of the second movement, and the mounting terror of the closing storm are all convincingly sounded. In contrast to Sir Rattle, Haitink's Prelude builds to an intense and surprisingly urgent climax. His versionof the Nocturnes is just as good. I've never heard the "Festivals" played so excitingly. If the Iberia is not quite on this same exalted level (I prefer both Reiner and Van Beinum), it is nonetheless a satisfying performance that wears well over time.
In truth, I've never been convinced that the Berlin Philharmonic can play Debussy. Karajan's Debussy was always more about Karajan than Debussy, and Abbado, a conductor who knows and loves Debussy, was never able to secure more than perfunctory performances out of the orchestra. So I'm assuming the tentativeness I hear in the EMI production is not all coming from the podium. The Concertgebouw, on the other hand, learned Debussy from Mengelberg — who in turn learned it from the composer himself. One of Mengleberg's most treasured possessions was a score of La Mer autographed by the composer. Eduard Van Beinum, who preceded Haitink in Amsterdam, was a great Debussy conductor, and his recordings of this music still sound pretty spectacular today. In other words, the Concertgebouw brings both a physicality and an authority to these performances that the Berlin simply can't match.
As for the sound, the EMI is as dim and diffuse as the interpretations. I last heard these Haitink renditions on a Phillips "Duo" CD that contained all of his Debussy. To the spaciousness and clarity of that release, this German pressing has added more warmth. The performances now sound more like the original LPs — which is to say remarkably fine. In the end, the Haitink disc wins this contest hands down. At a third less money than the EMI (which would be overpriced no matter what they charged for it), this generous program belongs in every collection. I can only hope that Philips will be encouraged to release the remaining treasures from Haitink's Debussy.