Last Friday SFS Media released the latest album of concert recordings by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) led by its Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT). The single CD contains three compositions that Claude Debussy composed relatively late in his life, all within the span of two years. The major work is the set of three orchestral “images,” written in 1912 and inspired by three countries, Great Britain, Spain, and France, respectively. Furthermore, the Spanish “image,” entitled Ibéria, is actually a suite in three movements, while the “outer images” are single-movement compositions. The other major work on the album is the score Debussy wrote between mid-August and mid-September of 1912 for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, specifically for the ballet “Jeux” created by Vaslav Nijinsky. The album then concludes with an “encore” selection, “La plus que lente” (the more than slow), which Debussy composed for solo piano in 1910 and then orchestrated for flute, clarinet, cimbalom, and strings in 1912.
As with all SFS Media productions, the album draws upon recordings made during SFS subscription concerts. The earliest of these were the performances of “Jeux” given on January 10–13 of 2013. “La plus que lente” was one of seven “shorts” programmed for concerts given on September 26–28, 2013 and was previously included on the SFS Media Masterpieces in Miniature album, which was released in November of 2014. The complete performances of the orchestral images were given at the concerts on May 22–25, 2014.
This album has to go down as one of MTT’s riskier undertakings, just because there are so many albums of Debussy’s music out there. Indeed, there is even a 1951 RCA Victor recording of the complete set of orchestral images made by Pierre Monteux conducting the San Francisco Symphony at their old home, the War Memorial Opera House, in 1951. In the more recent past Pierre Boulez was particularly taken with the modernism of “Jeux;” and the catalog of his recordings includes sessions with both the New Philharmonia Orchestra and the Cleveland Orchestra.
Nevertheless, I have to confess a personal attachment to MTT’s approach to Debussy. My return to the United States to begin work in Palo Alto coincided with the beginning of MTT’s tenure as SFS Music Director; and it did not take long for my wife and I to find ourselves attending SFS concerts, usually on Sunday afternoons. The first concert that really seized my attention (and has remained in memory ever since) included a performance of Debussy’s three-movement suite La mer (the sea) at which I appreciated, for the very first time, how the texture of activity within the orchestra was connected to the woodblock print of a great wave by Hokusai that supposedly inspired Debussy, There were ways in which MTT not only understood the significance of critical details but also conveyed his understanding to his concert audiences.
Since then I have listened eagerly to MTT’s Debussy performances. As a result I was at all three of the concerts at which performances were recorded to make this album, attending them at that time as part of my work for Examiner.com. None of those performances disappointed me. Nevertheless, the details that matter in Debussy’s music are often very subtle ones. Thus, while the new SFS Media recording triggers memories of some of my most enjoyable concert experiences, I fear that the technology did not do justice when it came to summoning the reasons why my memories were so strong.
The recording industry has been kind to Debussy through the sheer volume of albums that enable the curious listener to get to know his music, but the recordings that capture the sonic attributes that matter most in a compelling Debussy performance are few indeed. Even the best capture technology is not up to a task in which the details are as refined as they are in Debussy’s scores. The result is that, for reasons that are difficult to pinpoint, the production efforts behind this new recording never rise to the heights of the concert experiences from which the source material was taken.
This new album may probably best be appreciated by those just getting to know Debussy’s music. It is an excellent opportunity to provide frequent listening to compositions that do not get very much exposure in concert programming. Thus, it is a way for the serious listener to become acquainted with the music in such a way that the “magic behind the music” has a better to chance to register when that listener finally has an opportunity to experience a concert performance of one of more of these pieces.