DEBUSSY:  Jeux.  La Mer.  Nocturnes
Vienna Philharmonic Orch/Lorin Maazel, cond/Schoenberg Choir (Nocturnes)

RCA/BMG  64616  (F) (DDD)  TT:  67:46

It was reported on NPR some months ago that Lorin Maazel and the Vienna Philharmonic had a major tiff while on tour and the orchestra retaliated by purposely playing imprecisely during a performance of BolÈro. This apparently was after these Debussy performances were recorded live in Vienna's Musikverein in January 1999. Surely one never would suspect any lack of rapport between conductor and orchestra in what is heard here..  

 The Vienna Philharmonic, capable of enormous masses of sound in Bruckner and Mahler, here  produces big-scale orchestral textures for these Debussy masterworks, sensuous yet always with an underlying sense of power.This La Mer is among the finest  on discs. Debussy wasn't enthusiastic about composing music for Diaghilev's planned ballet Jeux (he became more positive towards the project when the fee was upped). The odd story line concerns a man and two female companions in tennis clothes looking for love and a lost ball. The May 1913 premiere was a failure, and to this day Jeux is seldom presented as a ballet. Concert performances are more frequent, and Maazel's is equal to any, abetted by the magnificent playing of the VPO as Maazel masterfully negotiates the score's countless intricacies. Nocturnes are appropriately atmospheric, with a dynamic" Festivals," and a well-judged approaching procession.

A remarkable feature of this recording is although these are live recordings there is total absence of audience sounds. There is no applause ( fortunately) at the conclusion of any of the works, so obviously rehearsals were recorded as well as performances with masterful editing to blend the two.  Sound, per se, is outstanding, with warmth, richness and presence. Sonically all is not totally  perfect. The wordless  womens' chorus in the third of  Nocturnes, "Sirenes," is entirely too close, and  the first-violin  22- bar A-flat harmonic  half-way through "Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea" in La Mer is virtually inaudible. It would have been ideal had BMG/RCA recorded  these performances in Dolby Surround as they did Maazel's impressive  Richard Strauss set (reviewed on this site).

There are other CDs of these three works that have more music. (Boulez/Cleveland Orchestra also has the Premiere Rhapsody; Bernstein/New York Philharmonic includes Afternoon of a Faun), and one surely should not overlook the budget-priced Haitink/Concertgebouw Philips set.   But Maazel's is well worth hearing

R.E.B. (Dec. 1999)