For the past several years, the London Philharmonic Orchestra has been releasing one live recording after another. Clearly, they cherrypick their concerts for particularly prime performances. One such came out last fall: a choice program of works by Ravel and Debussy, conducted meticulously and purposefully by François-Xavier Roth and streaming at Spotify.
Beyond the simple pairing of a couple of French impressionists, it’s a smart choice of pieces. Roth considered the famous, chromatic descending progression of Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune and immediately thought of the big riff from Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole – or the other way around.
This is often a very suspenseful recording. Although one hardly thinks of Debussy or Ravel as Halloween music, it was tempting to save this for the annual October-long Halloween celebration here. While the cd booklet doesn’t specify the location where the concert was recorded, there’s a generous amount of natural reverb, soloists bright and clear over the lushness of the massed high strings somewhat muted behind them.
Rising from almost complete silence, Roth leads the ensemble in a terse, hushed, relentlessly uneasy pulse, even beyond the first flamenco flute cadenza of the Rapsodie espagnole. The momentary Malaguena dance is coyly and elegantly phantasmagorical; the Habanera, starry and lustrous until sudden flashes of fireworks. The dynamics of the coda are on the restrained side for the most part. adding considerable and rather unexpected poignancy and make the finale seem even more explosive.
The take of Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune is similarly cautious and low-key, straight through to the woodwinds and the soloists, although Roth plays up the Spanish tinges as you would hope he’d do with this program. Then, when you would least expect it, everybody picks up the pace for a bit before returning to a pastorale that’s short of being languid. This is late afternoon and Bambi is on the lookout for guys with guns!
For Debussy, the ocean wasn’t the empire it was for Vaughan Williams, or the passion it was for Mendelssohn…or the potentially apocalyptic vortex it is for John Luther Adams. Debussy gravitated toward the coast, and this version of La mer is all about seashore, and waves and tidal motion, maybe in a sailboat but not out on the high seas.
Sudden but careful swells, flickering brass and winds lapping the beach color the opening movement: even a couple of passing storms steer clear of full-on thunder until the very end. What’s delightful about Roth’s interpretation is that this comes across e just as much of a nightscape, even if the composer specifies dawn til noon.
Roth also brings up the hidden flamenco touches in the playful waves of the second movement along with some dazzling sunbursts. The concluding duel between wind and waves is for the most part a genteel one, with more than one wry reference to the album’s previous woodsy scenario. Even if you’ve heard these pieces plenty of times, this album lures you to rediscover them.