Here's a spectacular new super audio release from the Swedish BIS label that will knock the socks off anything you've been listening to in this "seascape" or any other repertory. Lan Shui and the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, ably abetted by Sharon Bezaly's flute and some other instrumentalists in solo roles, give a fulfilling concert of songs of the ocean comprising a warhorse -- Debussy's La Mer" -- an English version of the ocean -- Frank Bridge's "The Sea" -- a Glazunov rarity of the same name and Zhou Long's "The Deep, Deep Sea."
THe relatively little known conductor and orchestra concertize together across the Pacific and have a discography of rarities -- Tcherepnin, Yardumian, Yi, Musgraves, etc. They are expert in the music of Zhou, having previously recorded the composer's "Rhymes" on BIS. Other participants highlighted in the recording are Gulnara Mashurova on harp and Jonathan Fox on timpani. The recordings, all made at Esplanade Concert Hall, Singapore, were taped between August 2004 (Debussy, Zhou Long, Glazunov) and July 2005 (Bridge).
Here conductor and band go head to head with the greatest conductors and bands of the recorded era in Debussy's landmark retelling of ocean antics, "La Mer". The first thing you have to say about this recording is its fabulous depth of sound field and definition. Many commentators have said SACD is what the CD should have been from the beginning. If this recording was the standard for that thinking, it's likely the medium would not have lost so many listeners to downloads (this recording sounds pretty good on download, too.)
Artistically, Lan and Singapore Symphony take a slower, less mercurial approach to Debussy's seascape than my favored conductors in this music, Boulez with Cleveland Orchestra for orchetral definition and Stokowski's more grandly romanticized account with the New Philharmonia Orchestra on a deleted Decca Phase 4 recording that's been reinvented by Arkiv. In its new series, Arkiv buys the rights and will burn you an individual CD with original cover art sans notes. However, the cover art Arkiv offers isn't what came with the Phase 4 recording; it's what came with Stoki's British Decca recording.
Many listeners will also be attuned to Frank Bridge's suite, "The Sea", a four-part composition with sections called Seascape, Sea-foam, Moonlight, and Storm. Lan leads a reading that sympathizes with Bridge while perhaps not owing up to either its most powerful aspects or its most subtle beauties as realized in Vernon Handley's 1986 recording with the Ulster Orchestra. Lan leads a scrumptious reading nonetheless, one that details the score more thoroughly in beautifully-realized sound that makes Handley's recording sound pedestrian by turn.
After this pair of fabulous sea voyages the Glazunov seems something of a comedowm, perhaps more befitting an encore. With its Wagnerian rumination, this echt-Russian piece sounds Tchaikovskian when the harp enters after a couple minutes and later cranks up the volume quite a bit before leaving its voyagers with cheerfulness and high expectations.
Beijing-born Zhou Long's "The Deep, Deep Sea" is based on "The Hard Road" by eighth century Chinese poet Li Bai. With flutist Sharon Bezaly its dedicatee, the score suggests some of Mendelssohn's "Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage" in a mix of Eastern and Western influences. It seems to me more like film music reflecting an underwater voyage than peer of the trio that came before it. Certainly it is a fitting conclusion to a delicately constructed and monumentally fine sounding recording.
To sum up, this recording is for audiophiles (even though it can't be played digitally) and is musically pretty sound, as well. For me, artistry and musicmaking are issues No. 1 and 1A and, on those counts, Lan Shui and collaborators are fine if not completely up to the standards of my favored recordings. For anyone coming to these scores for the first time, as well as listeners that value recording technology, this is easily a must buy and could be their recording of the year.