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“I love the sea and I have listened to it passionately,” Debussy wrote. But he was some distance away from it when he began work on La Mer during the summer of 1903, as he was in landlocked Burgundy. He did in fact complete the piece by the coast, not in France, but at the Grand Hotel in Eastbourne while on holiday with his lover Emma Bardac, who would later become his wife.
The work is a series of three symphonic sketches for large orchestra and is regarded by many as a masterpiece of Impressionism. Debussy gave pictorial names to each sketch, which he said should not be taken literally, although his friend Erik Satie joked that he liked “From dawn to noon on the sea” (the first sketch), “especially the part from 10.30 to a quarter to 11.00.”
The second sketch is entitled the Play Of The Waves before ending with the Dialogue Of The Wind And The Sea. The premiere of La Mer was given in Paris on October 15, 1905 by the Lamoureux Orchestra under the baton of Camille Chevillard.
The first port of call is the French National Orchestra under Jean Martinon in a recording made in the early 1970s. This all-French affair has an edginess about it that certainly illustrates the unpredictability of the sea and its different moods. The woodwinds, especially the oboes, have a distinctly nasal timbre, common in French orchestras of a bygone era. Martinon turns up the heat when needed and he certainly whips up quite a storm in the Dialogue Of The Wind And The Sea.
Also from the 1970s, but in the distinctly more opulent acoustic of the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, is Bernard Haitink gently easing his orchestra into From Dawn To Noon On The Sea, before managing to convey a translucent hue in Play Of The Waves. Haitink produces an array of textures (as he demonstrates so brilliantly in the concluding sketch) by building and executing the sweeping climaxes to a tee.
Just as arresting is the versatile musician Pierre Boulez, at the helm of the Cleveland Orchestra. Right from the off it’s highly detailed, crystal clear and blessed with some skilled sound engineering. However, some may find his approach perhaps a touch cool and calculated, but he nevertheless conjures up a cohesive and wholesome sound from the orchestra, so it’s hardly surprising that this was a recipient of two Grammy Awards in 1996.
Nine years on from Boulez’s recording Simon Rattle put down a particularly strong marker with his Berlin Philharmonic. Rattle wallows in the rich palette of the opening sketch and dispatches playing of great fervour, before the lighter second episode leads us into some gale force playing in the finale.
Our journey ends in South Korea with the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra and Myung-Whun Chung. This deserves its place at the top table, not least for producing such a dramatic statement, but because of playing of the utmost authority. Chung masterfully depicts the waves rolling in during the last movement; and like Debussy, he must have listened to the sea passionately to have realised this so well.
This is a hard one to call, as all of our contenders more than do justice to this spectacular work. But for overall satisfaction Boulez and Haitink lead the way, with the latter just edging it in terms of orchestral colour.
THE RECORDING TO OWN ￼￼￼
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Bernard Haitink
PHILIPS 438 7422
Haitink works his magic with this technicolour score. It’s highly descriptive and hugely benefits from an outstanding recording that forms part of a two-CD set.
• French National Orchestra/Jean Martinon
EMI 365 2352
• The Cleveland Orchestra/ Pierre Boulez
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 439 8962
• Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Simon Rattle
EMI 558 0452
• Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra/Myung-Whun Chung
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 476 449