Roger Nichols reminds us in his excellent booklet essay that the composition of this orchestral triptych occupied Debussy for seven years… I'm in no doubt that this is a very successful account of Images. I felt drawn in right at the start of Gigues by the lovely, subtle playing of the introduction. As the performance unfolded, I was greatly impressed by the clarity that Elder and his players achieve; this ensures that all the different textural strands of Debussy's music make their mark in a very natural way. I admired also the vitality in the rhythms – the frequent references to 'The Keel Row' all have a spring in the step.
Ibéria receives a fine performance. In 'Par les rues et par les chemins' the vibrant primary orchestral colours and lively rhythms are all relished… The concluding Rondes de printemps is another success. The performance is full of life and energy and once again I was struck by the perceptive way in which Elder demonstrates care for detail, yet always within the concept of Debussy's 'big picture'. In sum, this is a super account of Images.
…This latest CD brings us the premiere recording of Et la lune descend sur la temple qui fut,… With this orchestration, Colin Matthews confirms yet again that he has as acute an ear for Debussy's soundworld as does Mark Elder. This is a sensitive and atmospheric re-imagining of the original piano piece. As I've found with Matthews' previous such essays, he remains faithful to the original spirit of the music and subtly enhances it. Et la lune descend sur la temple qui fut is an evocative nocturnal piece and Matthews clothes the music in suitably pastel timbres. The Hallé's collective finesse does the rest. The results are lovely.
…To conclude, we hear one of Debussy's most celebrated orchestral scores: Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. I'm glad that flautist Katherine Baker is credited because she plays the crucial flute part marvellously. Much of her playing is sensual and sinuous but she's equally impressive in the more acrobatic passages. The performance as a whole is gorgeous. Once again, Elder and his orchestra bring out all the nuances in the music and when greater ardour is required, they deliver the goods. This is a glowing performance.
I enjoyed this disc very much indeed. Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé have previously given us notable series of recordings of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Sibelius. Their exploration of Debussy on disc has been no less distinguished and this latest instalment is fully up to the standard of its predecessors…
Engineer Steve Portnoi has recorded the performances in very satisfying sound which is detailed without being analytical. Roger Nichols' notes are predictably expert.
Music Web International – Classical Review
The playing of this orchestra seems to get better with each succeeding CD, something evident from the very beginning of Images. (Just to clarify – these orchestral Images are a completely separate entity from the two sets of Images for piano. That can cause some confusion, as can the fact that the middle one of these three Images – Ibéria - is itself sub-divided into three separate sections.) The first movement, Gigues, with its curious reference to the English folk-song The Keel Row, is a magical opening to the disc. A flute softly hints at the folk-song, against a typically misty background. Then Debussy brings in a keening melody played by the oboe d’amore. This is essentially a Baroque instrument, much loved by Bach, though this is the only time Debussy used it. Why? Well, pitch-wise, the d’amore is between the oboe and the cor anglais. I wonder if one of the oboists in the orchestra who gave the premiere (the Orchestre Colonne) possessed such an instrument and played it to Debussy? It’s possible, and there’s no question that its plaintive tone is perfect – throatier than the oboe, yet not as rich as the cor anglais. The whole of Gigues is a delight, and it is played superbly here.
Images is followed by three smaller-scale works. Et la lune descend…(difficult to translate, but usually given as ‘And the moon descends over the temple that was’) is one of the Images for piano, and is a strange, gnomic piece showing the influence of Indonesian music. Matthews’ deft instrumentation made me realise how much Debussy meant to a composer such as Gustav Holst, not only in The Planets, but even more clearly in Egdon Heath. Elder and his players perfectly capture the other-worldly character of the shifting, indefinable harmonies.
La plus que lente is a slow and sensuous waltz, with more than a touch of affectionate parody. Though originally for piano, Debussy orchestrated it himself, with the curious inclusion of a cimbalom – that strung folk instrument that makes an occasional appearance in orchestral music, e.g. Kodály’s Háry János. I’d never heard this version of the piece before, and it is great to have it here. The Hallé perform it with great style, capturing the languid rubato to great effect.
And the disc is completed by what is perhaps Debussy’s greatest masterpiece, the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. This exquisite yet epoch-making work benefits from the really wonderful flute playing of Katherine Baker, the orchestra’s principal flautist. Indeed, all the wind playing is of the highest possible standard – the bassoon of Emily Hultmark, the horn playing of Laurence Rogers and his section, and the oboe of Stéphanie Rancourt. I don’t know a better recording of the work, though Claudio Abbado’s with the Berlin Philharmonic on DG, in which Emmanuel Pahud weaves his magic, takes some beating.
Another great disc from Elder and the Hallé.