It's safe to say that no Russian conductor from the past made an impression with Debussy, even though the Paris-Moscow axis had a huge influence on modern art (in ballet, painting, theater). Gergiev would seem to be making a stealthy approach to Debussy's two most famous orchestral works, but in fact he has widely performed both the Afternoon of a Faun and La mer. One of this great conductor's strengths is in the shaping of quiet, nuanced music, and his version of Faun is the most delicate I've ever heard, superbly balanced on the verge of tremulousness. The opening flute solo approaches from the shadows, and although the eroticism of the faun doesn't appear, Debussy's magical orchestration is given full play - delicious. There is more warmth than in Boulez's two accounts, so as famous as they are, I would call this new one my favorite among modern recordings.
It's now customary to play La mer as an orchestral showpiece in the same league as Stravinsky's Rite of Spring and the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra. I've heard James Levine lead the BSO in a thrilling reading that put even Munch in the shade. Gergiev takes a different tack, focusing, as in Faun, on the gossamer orchestration of the atmospheric sections, to the point that some listeners may miss the expected drama of the sea in turmoil. He's not fussy or cautious (charges that could be leveled against Michael Tilson Thomas and Esa-Pekka Salonen in this music), but we're some distance from Karajan's famous account with its blazing virtuosity. Limited to fewer big surges, the LSO plays with such variety and color that I heard La mer with fresh ears, transported into the heart of the orchestra through intimacy. As a balancing act between drama and impressionism, I found this an engrossing reading and remarkable proof of Gergiev's rapport with his orchestra, five years into their partnership. A haunting experience.
For the general audience, Jeux has been a problem child among Debussy's major orchestral works, being diffuse, unmelodic, and harmonically elusive. The Nijinsky ballet for which it was written centered (improbably) on a game of tennis, but don't expect competitive thrills or playfulness - Jeux is almost an abstract study in textures. The only previous recording that fully captured my attention was by Lorin Maazel (on RCA/BMG), displaying his full command of orchestral technique. My usual experience is that Debussy's final orchestral work lasts a long 18 minutes. Gergiev's approach is intriguing in that he accents the score as if it were the Firebird, bringing out sharp colors and eerie atmosphere. Among the variable recordings engineered in the Barbican, this one is detailed and clear, so one hears the fine sewing that Debussy knits together. There is more drama, more rise and fall than in Haitink's widely admired, and excellent version. I must admit that without quite getting Jeux, I stayed the course with pleasure. Gergiev's evident enthusiasm carried me along.
For some reason I haven't read any raves for this CD, perhaps because Gergiev is taken granted as the workaholic among conductors - no one else produces recordings at this rate nowadays. But no one who loves Debussy should consider this just another La mer and Afternoon of a Faun. There is much more to listen to and be fascinated by.