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Classical CDs Weekly: Debussy, Grainger, Lully | reviews, news & interviews

Classical CDs Weekly: Debussy, Grainger, Lully

Classical CDs Weekly: Debussy, Grainger, Lully

Does anyone really need 19 discs of Percy Grainger’s music?

This week we review Bellérophon, a rare Baroque opera from Lully which was exhumed by Christophe Rousset and performed for the first time last year, Debussy recorded live from the Barbican, and we answer the key question: how much is too much Percy Grainger? Would, for example, 19 discs be considered sufficient?

410Qjw3cHYL__SL500_AA300_Debussy: La mer, Jeux, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune London Symphony Orchestra/Gergiev (LSO Live)

If you don’t know Debussy’s 1913 tennis-inspired ballet Jeux, then start here. Performed by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes with choreography by Nijinsky in May 1913, it flopped, and had the bad luck to be overshadowed several weeks later by the premiere of Stravinsky’s Le sacre. It’s music of delicious, baffling subtlety, opening with gossamer string chords stolen from Dukas’s L’apprenti sorcier. The tempi change every few seconds and melodies emerge only to promptly disappear. But Debussy’s gift for ever-changing orchestral colouring delights; it’s as if someone’s thrown a dripping paintbrush over the manuscript. Valery Gergiev clearly loves this music, and he’s aided by pin-sharp orchestral playing and the clarity of the Barbican acoustic – I’ve never heard so many details emerge so clearly yet so naturally. And the unexpected final pay-off is great.

Gergiev’s La mer doesn’t work quite so well – the sound needs a little more haze and bloom, and the broadness of the first movement means that the tension can sag, despite an impressively controlled coda. But the close of the third movement is incredibly exciting, with nicely audible percussion. Though it’s a shame that Gergiev doesn’t reinstate the brass fanfares which Debussy unwisely excised. The Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune is played just right, not too languid and with a beautiful limpid flute solo from Gareth Davies.

Watch Gergiev and the LSO in Debussy’s La mer

51kEJ8dAlzL__SL500_AA300_The Grainger Edition Various Artists (Chandos, 19 CDs)

Does anyone really need 19 discs of Percy Grainger’s music? Yes, they do. I’m a recent convert, and I’ve been dipping in and out of this generously priced Chandos box for the past few months. Grainger’s reputation as nothing more than an eccentric entertainer isn’t fair – though much of this music is supremely entertaining. The folk song arrangements are a good starting point: Grainger treats his source material with incredible respect but knows just when to go off on one – sample the opening to Early One Morning, with lonely wind solos set against chromatic string chords – it’s sublime. Many of the pieces exist in multiple versions: for solo piano, orchestra, wind band. Grainger was an advocate of "elastic scoring", ensuring that his music could be performed using different combinations of instruments. And with a box this size, we do get pretty much every combination, with some works heard in wind band, orchestral, solo piano and chamber versions.

Where to begin? The Warriors, Grainger’s extravagant, Ivesian ballet score, has been recorded by Gardiner and Rattle, and Richard Hickox’s version is as good as either, with the offstage brass and multiple pianos nicely present. It sounds like nothing you’ll have heard before; marvel at Grainger’s use of tuned percussion, a feature of so much of his orchestral and wind band music. The Power of Rome and the Christian Heart is as disquieting and unsettling as David Nice suggested in his recent review. The songs are dispatched by a starry cast, including mezzo Della Jones and tenor Martyn Hill. Penelope Thwaites accompanies, and also gives us the solo piano music. The orchestral and choral works are directed by Hickox, and the wind-orchestra pieces are played by the excellent RNCM Wind Orchestra under Timothy Reynish and Clark Rundell. The one minor snag is the absence of track listings on the back of each CD sleeve; you’ll have to refer to the booklet for that. Barry Peter Ould’s sleeve notes are fascinating. I’ll still be exploring this music for years to come; for now, I’m going to listen again to Arrival Platform Humlet (the sort of tune hummed while waiting for a loved one on a station platform) and grin for the umpteenth time.

412KUEZQU6L__SL500_AA300_Jean-Baptiste Lully: Bellérophon Les Talens Lyriques/Christophe Rousset (Aparte)

Born Giovanni Lulli in Florence in 1632, Jean-Baptiste Lully settled in France in 1646, becoming Louis XIV’s court composer in 1652. Alas, he’s chiefly remembered today for the manner of his death, caused by accidentally striking his toe whilst beating time with a long staff, the precursor of conducting with a baton. The wound turned gangrenous, Lully refused to have the toe amputated and died weeks later.

Keen to impress his patron, Lully’s operas tended to have mythological themes with heroes easily equated with the Sun King. Bellérophon was premiered to great acclaim in 1679 and was so popular that Louis would frequently interrupt performances, demanding that favourite sections be repeated. Long neglected, a first edition of Lully’s score was found by Christophe Rousset 20 years ago in an antique bookshop in Paris and was given its first modern performances last year. The story of the heroic Bellérophon, defeating the evil Chimera on a winged horse, reflected Louis’s recent military successes in the Franco-Dutch War. Christophe Rousset’s lavish, impeccably cast studio recording succeeds on every level. Best of all is Ingrid Perruche’s spiteful Sténobée, a wonderful foil to Jean Teitgen’s villainous Amisodar, whose dark magic conjures up the fire-breathing Chimera. Rousset’s pacy direction and superb continuo playing ensure that there are no longueurs. Excellent annotation and luxury packaging too – why can’t all opera releases be as fun as this?

Watch Rousset conduct Lully

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