The Hallé Orchestra has been renowned for many things in its 162-year history, but the music of Debussy has not been one of them. The meat-and-potato repertoire of English symphonists and Brahms has been more its line, rather than the exquisite sauces and scents of French music.
Its long-standing music director Mark Elder has changed all that. In recent years he and this Northern powerhouse orchestra have become formidable in Debussy's music, well able to challenge traditional front-runners such as Pierre Boulez and the Cleveland Orchestra. Their latest recording tops their fine release of Debussy’s La Mer made in 2007 and the Nocturnes of 2019.
The centrepiece is "Images" (Pictures), an extraordinary set of five musical picture-postcards. It launches off with the dancing Gigues, sometimes described as the “British” postcard because of its cheerful high-kicking energy and the fleeting references to the Northumbrian folk-tune “The Keel Row”. Then comes a set of three Spanish scenes, the first bustling and busy, the second evoking “perfumes of the night”, the third a morning fiesta. Finally comes the most refined and evanescent of the set, a "Rondes des Printemps" (Spring Dance) saturated with Debussy’s favourite French folksongs.
The orchestral detail is fabulously refined, and every part of it shines out in this recording. But that’s not the real reason it stands out from the crowd. Orchestral standards (and recording quality) have risen so much in recent decades that the kind of “forensic clarity” people praised Boulez’s performances for 40 or 50 years no longer seem so special. In any case is “forensic clarity” something we really want in Debussy? The term has connotations of a police investigation, but what we’re dealing with here isn’t cold, hard fact; it’s poetic suggestiveness and subtle shades of feeling. And this is where Elder and the Hallé score so highly.
Debussy wanted the tempo of these piece to be constantly varied (the word “rubato” appears throughout the score – it literally means “stolen”, referring to a way of accelerating and then relaxing the tempo). Elder and the players catch this sense of a music as spontaneous and eager and flexible as life itself. They are also true to the many-layered quality of the music, the way it can summon more than one feeling at once. There’s an especially striking example in the first Spanish postcard “In the Streets and Alleyways”, where the percussion summons up the bustle of a street, but the melody in the violins suggests something erotic hanging in the air, emphasised by the tipsy, sliding quality in the performance.
Alongside the Images are a wonderfully tender and refined performance of the epoch-making “Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un Faune,” (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun), a delicious arrangement by Debussy himself of his waltz “La Plus que Lent” (The Slower than Slow), plus the first ever recording of an arrangement of the piano Prelude “Et la Lune descend sur le Temple qui fut” (The Moon descends on the ruined Temple) by Colin Matthews, which brings out all the music’s sepulchral majesty. In all it’s a feast for the ear and the imagination.
Debussy: Images is released by Hallé