Spring is the world reborn according to an exuberant mediaeval Latin poem the Pervigilium Veneris - ver renatus orbis est. For me it is a little bit of a personal renewal, via this record and literally. The spring comes slowly up this way in the Pennine hills, and the time of year thou mayest in me behold is not exactly spring, but the sense of it is here. Included in the music is the Rondes de printemps, the final number in Debussy's orchestral Images, and also a welcome out-of-the-way piece his early 2-movement `symphonic suite' Printemps. The moment therefore seemed right to obtain this disc, especially as the two `springtime' works were unaccountably missing from my collection.
There was something else I wanted to renew, and it was my acquaintance with the work of Pierre Boulez. Years ago I had formed an impression of him as a martinet - very exact and therefore a natural for Stravinsky, but slightly forbidding. Whether this had anything to do with his early personal association with Stravinsky, or with his uncanny resemblance when young to Marlon Brando, or with his own very uncompromising compositions, or whether it was just something that I had been told, I don't now remember. However when I recently obtained his set of The Rite of Spring and Petrushka I was struck indeed with his exactness, but also with the beauty of the works as they came from him. Time to try him in Debussy then, and none too soon as it turns out.
You would expect top-class playing from the Cleveland Orchestra, and you would be right to. You would not be surprised if even in Debussy you heard more orchestral detail from Boulez than you usually do from other conductors, and you will not be surprised in that way here. Where you might be surprised is at the sheer beauty of the tone and phrasing, depending on what you had been led to expect. The superb balance of the orchestral tones, the strength of line without rigidity, the affection accompanying the perfection in the phrasing - all this was reminding me of someone else. Could I be listening, at long last, to a successor, the very last successor I might have been expecting - to Beecham?
That question is obviously rhetorical, and I can pay no greater compliment to any conductor. The first item on the disc is the evergreen Prelude a l'Apres-midi. How many performances of this I own I am not sure, including no mean renditions from Britten and Cantelli. However one performance has always served as my benchmark, and I expect you can guess by now whose performance that is. I am not suggesting that Boulez is any kind of clone of Beecham. He is his own man entirely, but here again is the wonderful sense of erotic languor in the heavy noonday heat. The interpretation is different in numerous respects, but what the two have in common is that marvellous atmosphere that I sense from no other accounts. Warm, soporific and all, it still reawakened in one listener a response to the music that I had not expected to experience again.
Other than Les Parfums the rest of the music is more lively, although I can never help smiling at the composer's repeated edicts against overdoing things - tres modere, modere, assez anime, moderement anime, tres modere, modere. The virtues usually to be expected from Boulez are here to satisfy expectations and more. Clarity and strength sure, but also the exquisite phrasing and heavenly orchestral tone that I was talking about above. I suppose Les Parfums might be a bit more `lent et reveur' as marked, but even here I think the composer's instruction needs a bit of interpretation, because I don't sense that his Spanish scene was entirely asleep, whatever he says.
The Images are a collection, not a set. They complement one another, and a certain variety is needed in their presentation. Rather than plod through details I shall say only that you will find exceptionally thoughtful readings in all of them. With music as great and visionary as this we can expect interpreters who are visionaries in their own right to have different things to tell us, and I like what I am being told here. The Printemps suite makes an imaginative conclusion to the concert, lightening the atmosphere, but not unduly. It seems to be to be in a slightly anonymous late romantic idiom, with just occasional hints of the great Debussy voice as we were to learn to know it. No problem for this maestro, and a welcome new acquisition for one collector at least.
The recording is from 1992, and it is a bit of a shock to realise how long ago that was now. However the quality is well up to any standards we would expect in the new millennium. The liner note is of a rather average-upmarket kind, but it contains some useful comment although in very small print. I guess that in 1992 I was not awake to everything I should have been awake to, and I welcome this springtime revival.
Debussy's orchestral works provide some of the most alluring and luscious sounds in all music. Sonority and textual clarity are wonderfully impressive in this recording of three of them conducted by Pierre Boulez. The Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune - occupying from eight to eleven minutes in the various versions in my collection - runs for nearly nine minutes here. Listening to the opening movement of the Images makes me wish that somebody had alerted Debussy to the existence of the English folk song "The Keel Row". I especially like Printemps, the earliest known Debussy orchestral work, dating from his 25th year. In this work, the orchestral forces include a piano.
The Cleveland Orchestra under the French conductor was recorded by the German DGG technicians in Cleveland in March 1991.