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4.7 out of 5 stars18
4.7 out of 5 stars
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on 3 March 2011
All of Debussy's generally acknowledged orchestral masterpieces are on these two CDS, along with a couple of short near-masterpieces. Penguin and Gramophone give the performances their highest possible accolades - rosette and gem - which raises my confidence in those two guidebooks. If anything deserves the highest honours it is these two CDs. These works demand subtle, refined and fluid playing, and that is what Haitink and the Concertgebouw deliver without compromise.

There are many demanding parts for soloists in these works, and the Concertgebouw soloists reveal themselves as some of the best in the business. The oboe is melancholy and disconsolate, the clarinets carousing and fluent, the trumpets raucous but musical. Haitink and the strings hold it all together with precision, delicacy, definition, and shimmering fluidity.

I find the four-star reviews overly critical, or at least too ready to drop a star. The shorter works are well worth listening to. Given that the CDs are crammed to the gunnels, they could have easily been left off. A star should be added for generosity!

The only criticism I can think of is the bland cover, a full-cover *actual* reproduction of Hokusai's "Hollow wave" might (just) do justice to the content - but that's nit picking. Never judge a CD by its cover...
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That's Holland the country, not the incumbent President of the Fifth French Republic. In fact everything on this pair of discs is from the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under Haitink with the solitary and minor exception of the Berceuse Heroique which is conducted by van Beinum in remastered 1959 sound. Whether it is best thought of as presenting a distinctively Dutch perspective on music that is the French of the French I could not say, but I have to say that some of it is too reticent for my own taste.

There is also the issue of the economics of such a compilation. This one dates from 1993 and presents music first recorded by Haitink over the period 1977-80. At that time economies of scale were starting to be out of date as internet shopping gradually took over. Any shopper wanting the `best' version (however defined) of every item here could, with patience, obtain bargain copies of the works separately and thus negate the intended savings. The need to trade quality for quantity has all but vanished from the music market by now, and the quality of this particular set is variable in some rather odd ways.

The items that seem to me outstandingly good are the Nocturnes, the strange ballet Jeux, and maybe the Prelude a l'apres Midi. As far as that last goes, it would be hard to be a serious cd collector without encountering excellent versions at every turn. Haitink's account is beautiful, with an exceptionally slow tempo, but I don't even know by now how many versions of the piece my collection owns, let alone which I like best, unless one can safely give an automatic vote to Beecham. As for the Nocturnes and Jeux, they were first issued by themselves on a Philips disc that won both the Orchestral Award and the Engineering Award from the Gramophone in 1980. That disc is short on quantity but long on quality, and to my way of thinking it would stand up to modern competition. If these are the pieces you want go for the Philips disc unhesitatingly. When it comes to the Images and La Mer you may want to investigate alternatives. Even without performing comparisons I sensed a slight lack of `presence' in these accounts. From reading some other reviews it's clear that I am not alone in this opinion, but my ears tell me that the problem is at least as much an issue of the recording as of the performances. The oddity is in the discrepancy with the Nocturnes. Recommending alternatives here is something a canny reviewer should be careful about doing, because there seems to be no generally accepted orthodoxy and listeners' criteria are many and various. In that case, rather than try to invest my own ideas with any inappropriate generality, I shall just mention a couple of interesting sets that are not getting much attention elsewhere.

For the Images you might be interested to try Boulez with the Cleveland on DG. Right from the harps in the first few bars of Gigues the difference from the sound Haitink gets is startling. Is it a bit too bright, digitised and DG? Could be, I suppose, and suggested affinities with Karajan always put me on my guard, but in the event I quickly adapted to the sound, which is a kind of sound that Boulez seems to like, for example in the Stravinsky ballets. Les Parfums may be a little on the brisk side, but I see no prospect of finding any general consensus about that and some other details - consensus is just not the way the musical public seems to react to Debussy's orchestral works in performance. In La Mer there is a fascinating reissue of 1950's performances by Cantelli and the Philharmonia. Cantelli was a genuine great, perishing in an air crash at age 36. The distinctive fluency and continuity of his beat can be heard here just as it can in the Brahms Third, and the remastering has been well done. By way of a bonus Cantelli also gives us two of the three Nocturnes, omitting Sirenes. The Nocturnes find the set under review here at its best, but I was amused to see that the chorus in Sirenes is not credited on the box or in the liner note.

There is also a Philips Eloquence disc featuring van Beinum again in Marche ecossaise and the the two Danses with harp and string orchestra. In fact I prefer the robustness of van Beinum in the Marche. In the harp pieces I find little or nothing to choose.

That just leaves the Prelude a l'apres-Midi. How many fine versions can there be of that? I happen to like this one, its tempo slower than Cantelli's and quite a lot slower than the not unexpectedly flowing speed adopted by Boulez. Do I have a favourite? Yes, Beecham yet again. It's astonishing how one keeps coming back to him even after all these years. Versions of the strange Jeux, on the other hand are rare birds on the earth. It was one of the things that prompted the Gramophone critics' raptures back in 1980. Haitink's performance does not seem to be facing much competition even yet, but it is likely to be able to stand up to any that does emerge. Taking the issue as a whole, it's worth remembering that this is a great conductor and a great orchestra. It may be that some of the criticism that the set has attracted may be down to the recording. However, there is no reason these days other than sheer convenience to buy a collection if you like other versions of any of its components better. In this particular case the real winner is the Nocturnes together with the elusive Jeux. I'll be bold enough to say go for the Philips set. As for the rest, I don't think I can be so definite, and some market research may be necessary for perfectionists.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 6 February 2007
This is a fantastic collection of Debussy's orchestral works. Even years after they were recorded, they remain some of the best interpretations available on CD. Great performances, especially La Mer which is totally mesmerising. If you want to discover Debussy, start here, and also buy a set of some of his solo piano works.
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on 15 July 2013
This set won so many awards for performance and recording quality well over thirty years ago. It is not so reassuring to know that this remains unsurpassed despite developments in sound engineering. There may be some recordings that are clearer now but this still holds up very well with Haitink and the Concertgebouw providing the best interpretations and performances available for all the major works. There are highlights, of course, with "La Mer" particularly successful and the "Nocturnes". I'd like, though to make a case for the work that many reviewers find the toughest and least welcoming; "Jeux".

Yes it is a tough nut but don't be fooled by the back story and Debussy's disapproval of the ballet scenario this is one of the most original scores of the Twentieth century that has gone on to influence the work of the avant-garde since. The music is comprised of twenty three sections that flow one to the next in a stream of consciousness like state. There are no themes to remember as the music is constantly shifting. In this way it is not unlike Schoenberg's "Erwartung" but tonally based and balletic. The constantly shifting textures and colour is brought to the fore in this performance and the dramatic climax is thoroughly convincing. If "La Mer" is viewed as an impressionistic symphony then "Jeux" is an "expressionist one" but with a nod towards the inevitable logic found in late Sibelius. "Jeux" is a masterpiece and well worth persisting with.

The rest is excellent too; you're in the safest hands possible. I've not mentioned the excellent recording here of "Images". The smaller works are hardly essential listening but who's complaining. This is an essential album at a bargain price.
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This Twofer contains the groundbreaking and groundworking orchestral music of this most delicate of French composers. Huge forces, brilliantly handled. Prelude a l'Apres Midi d'un Faune is here, La Mer (of course), the colourful Images. An added attraction is Debussy's orchestral Nocturnes with the hauntingly beautiful Nuages as first movement. Other excellent bonuses are his melting Dances for Harp and Strings and his Rhapsody for clarinet and orchestra. The only bugbear is his music for the short ballet Jeux which somehow never seemed and still never seems to provide inspiration.

As for the performances. Well, you can hardly ever go wrong with Haitink: he rarely inspires but he is a solid performer. The recordings date back to the late 1970s, so do not expect crystal clear reproduction, but overall the sound quality is more than good.

Recommended for those who want to try an aural accompaniment to gazing at their Monets and Pisarros. Debussy evinces the same exquisite craftsmanship with both a broad sweep and amazing detail.
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on 10 May 2016
A 2 cd collation of Debussy's orchestral works, this album provides a highly musical entry into his oeuvre - a good point of access for further exploration and purchases. I would recommend this 2 disc album for anyone new to Debussy or for background music while you work or relax.
Also it is sold at a very competitive price!
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VINE VOICEon 28 November 2015
This is a superb disc; sound quality and performances first rate. The rendition of Prelude a L'Apres-midi d' un faune is lovely, beautifully performed; one of Debussy's most famous creations. There is more than two hours of lovely music on these two discs, which will satisfy any admirer of the music of Debussy.
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on 17 July 2013
Choice of tempi, orchestra execution and recording are absolutely extraordinary. Not to be missed, evenafter all these years being on the market!
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on 17 August 2013
Wonderful playing, fabulous recording of some of the most beautiful orchestral works from the French Impressionist era. I was thrilled with everything on the set especially La Mer and the Prelude a l'apres midi. Bargain collection of some fantastic music.
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on 13 May 2016
This is an essential purchase. Bernard Haitink has never made a better recording.
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