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St. Paul, Minn. — On their newest release, Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic dish up a healthy portion of Debussy's most popular orchestral works. Then, they add a few tasty morsels that are much less familiar to most musical palettes. Two major works by Debussy, "Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun" and "La Mer", make up the main course, along with some rarely heard ballet music to spice things up, "La Boite a Joujoux " (The Toybox). For dessert, they offer an orchestrated version of Debussy's Three Preludes. Since life is short, I'll start with dessert.
Colin Matthews is the associate composer with the Hallé Orchestra. In 2000, Matthews composed "Pluto, the Renewer" for the Hallé Orchestra as an addition to "The Planets" by Gustav Holst. After completing that project, Matthews started to orchestrate Debussy's Three Preludes. He's not a pianist but that didn't stop him from trying to make his way through both books of Debussy's Preludes. Every time he played these pieces, he said he thought of them almost as if they were piano reductions of orchestral music. During the orchestration process, Matthews wasn't trying to imitate Debussy's style but he found the character of these pieces matched a certain mood he couldn't ignore. By following those instincts he creates a dreamy island of sound that flows right along with the rest of the watery landscape on this recording. My favorite is the last prelude, "Feux d ‘artifice" (Fireworks). As I listened, I got the feeling there was a mischievous little rogue at the center of this piece playing a joke on us. The trumpets and percussion seem to announce his latest caper.
Sir Simon Rattle loves the unique colors found in early 20th-century French music. Debussy is one of his favorite composers, so it's no wonder he makes magic with this music. Rattle's take on "La Mer" is meatier than most and the power of Debussy's boldest work really comes through, especially in the final movement as "Dialogue of the wind and the sea" builds into a fiery debate. Because he's such a big fan of this French Impressionist, Rattle also lets us in on one of the composer's secrets, a delightful ballet for children that you seldom hear. The ballet is based on a children's story called "La Boite a Joujoux" (The Toybox). It's not nearly as animated as you might expect. In fact, the first tableau is rather mysterious, with the strings and piano dancing lightly. It's as if the dolls are tip-toeing around the toy box planning an attack, which may be what they're doing. The next scene takes them out to the battlefield. The story inside the toy box is almost like a condensed opera: plenty of love, war and carousing.
For me, listening to this new live Debussy release with Sir Simon Rattle conducting the Berlin Philharmonic was like reading an exciting high sea adventure story. I kept turning the pages because I wanted to see what would happen next. I couldn't wait to hear each of the pieces on this varied, and interesting, selection of Debussy's music for orchestra.