Cambreling Explores Debussy

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DEBUSSY: Images pour orchestre. Danses pour harp et orchestre. La Mer / SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg; Sylvain Cambreling, cond / SWR Music 19508CD

Sylvain Cambreling, who was chief conductor of the SWR Sinfonieorchester from 1999 to 2011, is actually two different musicians: the one who made a specialty of conducting the updated edition of Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffmann during the 1980s at excruciatingly slow tempi (for whatever reason, never explained) and the much more outstanding conductor of the last 20 years. Why or how he changed his aesthetic from stodgy and uninteresting to brisk and lively, I have no idea, but these recordings, made in 2001 and 2004, are clearly among his better ones.

This album starts out with a particularly atmospheric reading of “Gigues,” the first part of the Images pour orchestre, and builds from there. As in his superb set of the complete orchestral music of Olivier Messiaen, Cambreling shows a fine grasp of structure and brings out a considerable amount of detail in these scores. Indeed, in the incisiveness of his rhythmic attacks, passionate playing and fairly quick tempi, his conducting here resembles the work of such past conductors as Charles Munch, Artur Rodziński and Arturo Toscanini, for whom “Ibéria” from the Images was a staple of his repertoire. I was also amazed by the way this orchestra, which also sounded lean but played with a more Germanic feeling under Michael Gielen, takes on a more French character in this repertoire. Indeed, I found his reading of “Ibéria” to be somewhat of a cross between Munch and Toscanini, having a more Gallic sound quality but only a bit less crispness and energy of the Italian conductor. The middle section, “Les parfums de la nuit,” is played with a surprisingly “snaky” sound that I can’t recall any other conductor replicating. He also does an outstanding job on the “Rondes de printemps,” and if the Danses for harp and string orchestra may seem a little feathery, it is still an interesting reading.

Although I am not quite prepared to put Cambreling’s interpretation of La Mer on the same high pedestal as Bernard Haitink’s early version with the Concertgebouw (surely the finest stereo recording of this work ever made), it is a surprisingly jaunty version. The opening movement, taken at Toscanini’s earlier, faster tempo (with the New York Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra) is much jauntier in feeling, sounding like the seaside on a happy summer’s day. This same feeling carries over to the “Play of the waves,” and appropriately so in this case. By contrast, the “Dialogue of the wind and the sea” is quite menacing, indeed. In all, then, a very unique version of this magnificent symphony and, again, the orchestral detail is exquisite.

Quite a pleasant surprise, then; surely one of the most interesting Debussy CDs I’ve heard in a long time!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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