Geoffrey Simon’s Debussy CDs

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DEBUSSY: La Cathédrale Engloutie (arr. Stokowski). L’Isle Joyeuse (arr. Bernardo Molinari). Deux Arabesques (arr. Mouton). La Mer. Bruyères (arr. Percy Grainger). Danse (Tarantelle Styrienne) (arr. Ravel). Children’s Corner (arr. André Caplet) / Philharmonia Orch.; Geoffrey Simon, cond / Signum SIGCD2092

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DEBUSSY: Estampes No. 2: La soirée dans Granada (arr. Stokowski). Clair de lune (orch. Caplet). Estampes No. 1: Pagodes (orch. Grainger). La fille aux cheveux de lin (orch. Gleichmann). Nocturnes.* Première rapsodie for Clarinet & Orchestra.+ Petite Suite (orch. Henri Büsser) / Philharmonia Orch. *& Chorus; +James Campbell, cl; Geoffrey Simon, cond / Signum SIGCD2093

My regular readers know that I am normally no fan of transcriptions of classical music, whether it’s a violin sonata transcribed for bassoon or oboe or an orchestration of a piano piece or chamber music, but once in a while such things work well. Claude Debussy’s music has long been fodder for such transcriptions, dating back to the composer’s own lifetime, and the list of names given here of the transcribers include such well-known composers as Percy Grainger and Maurice Ravel as well as such lesser-known ones as André Caplet, who spent much of his career transcribing Debussy for orchestra, Italian conductor Bernardo Molinari and Henri Büsser, the French conductor best known for having made the first complete electrical recording of Gounod’s Faust in 1930 (with legendary bass Marcel Journet as Mephistopheles).

Of course, this list also includes Leopold Stokowski, the “Technicolor Maestro” who spent a lifetime trying his damnedest to make classical pieces sound like movie music (and did pretty well at it, too). Stokie’s orchestration of La Cathédrale Engloutie is a typical effort, turning one of the most imaginative and original of all piano pieces into an M-G-M or J. Arthur Rank spectacular. However—and this is key—Geoffrey Simon’s conducting is so good that he transforms it into a mini-masterpiece. He has exactly the right touch for this music, combining its opaque qualities with a bit of muscle, just as Debussy wanted in his music. I should also add that to the usual Debussy opaqueness, Simon also brings out (when the scores allow it) tremendous clarity of texture and a bit of backbone, which Debussy also appreciated in interpreters of his music. Add to this some of the most spectacular sonics I’ve ever heard, and you have two CDs of music that will absolutely captivate you and hold your attention.

Of course, I judge any Debussy conductor by his genuine orchestral masterpieces, and Simon has included two of the big three on here, La Mer and the Nocturnes, omitting only the three Images pour orchestre as well as the authentic Rhapsody for Clarinet and Orchestra. Following the Engulfed Cathedral, Simon gives us a spirited reading of L’Isle Joyeuse that will pin you to the wall, and his performance of the Deux Arabesques (arranged by someone named Mouton, whose first name I could not discover online) is also very fine.

Ah, but then we encounter La Mer, and this is a hard-driven performance indeed—believe it or not, faster than the recording Arturo Toscanini made with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and far more brusque in phrasing. Simon drives the second movement as if it were a Beethoven Scherzo, which I didn’t care for at all.

Yet when he continues with the smaller pieces (Bruyères, Tarantelle Styrienne and especially the Children’s Corner), all is fine.

The second CD begins with Stokowski’s orchestration of Evening in Granada, which Simon also conducts well, followed by a very fine Clair de lune. Grainger’s orchestration of Pagodes is superb, using light percussion to create an Eastern atmosphere, and Simon handles it well. Someone named Gleichmann orchestrated The Girl With the Flaxen Hair, also a very sensitive transcription, and here Simon is atmospheric indeed.

Then we get the complete Nocturnes. These are also Toscanini-like in terms of clarity of texture and slightly quicker tempi, but not, to my ears, as insensitive as his La Mer. In fact, I would have to say that this is now my favorite modern/digital recording of these pieces. Simon’s performance of the clarinet Rhapsody is also excellent.

I also liked Büsser’s arrangement of the Petite Suite, so that makes the second disc a winner from start to finish. If only Simon’s La Mer had been a bit slower and more sensitive, both of these discs would have been outstanding. But even as it is, the performances here, by and large, are extremely well played and fantastically recorded.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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