Jeremy Lee writes
Compared to the Austro-Germanic classics, Giulini’s did not record nearly as much French music, and yet he evidently felt quite sympathetic to the colorful French style, as shown by the fact that he has recorded most of the works featured on this disc more than once. As with all remakes, the question that immediately comes to mind is, “Is it better than the old one?” In this case, not always.
Take La Mer as an example. Giulini has recorded this work at least three times (Philharmonia/EMI, Los Angeles/DG, and this one) and so has the Concertgebouw (Beinum/Philips, Haitink/Philips, and most recently Jansons/RCO Live). The Concertgebouw seems very much at home in this repertoire (both Beinum and Haitink’s recordings are superb), but in my opinion Giulini’s interpretation of the work never brought much special insight to the table. Nevertheless it is interesting to note the evolution of Giulini’s style: rather fiery in the Philharmonia one, recorded in the 1960s, dutiful but respectable in the 1979 Los Angeles one, and grandiose, reflective, mellow and serene in this last one with the Concertgebouw, a live performance given in 1994. In many ways Giulini’s expansive tempi and smoothed-over contrasts can sound slightly soporific, but throughout the performance you can palpably sense Giulini’s love of the work and his supreme control over the orchestra. Everything–be it the playing, coloring, shading, layering, phrasing–is nigh-on perfect, which is something we tend to take for granted (the Philharmonia and Los Angeles versions are audibly inferior to the Concertgebouw in terms of playing, splendid though they may be). Still, I wish for more amplitude and dynamism (Beinum and Reiner will throw you off your seats), which are qualities that the Philharmonia version contained, however unassumingly (and subsequently lost in the later two versions). So, while this performance on a whole isn’t what I’d call an improvement over the previous versions (except in the playing department), it is a fine memento of what Giulini’s style eventually turned into.
I am not aware that Giulini ever recorded a Faun Prélude prior to this performance. At 10:45, it’s a slower performance than most, and the central climax’s erotic sensuality is not effectively captured (Giulini as always is too “saintly”)–for that, there’s always Munch/BSO. However, as it stands, it’s a very beautiful performance that allows the ever-so-gorgeous Concertgebouw woodwind section to show off. The same goes for Ravel’s Pavane (a work Giulini also recorded with the Philharmonia on DG), led by an immaculate solo horn that manages to sustain the melody and phrase it sensitively despite Giulini’s plodding tempi (hearing it induces the same kind of suspense Arléen Auger delivers in her solo in Celibidache’s drawn-out Brahms Requiem). To conclude the programme, there is Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite that Giulini previously did with the Los Angeles Philharmonic on DG. Fine that version may be, this version is even better. The fairy-tale dreaminess is more atmospherically presented by Giulini and his Dutch forces, and the important woodwind playing is, as you would expect, marvelous (such a menacing Beast!). It all culminates in a truly uplifting, even life-affirming, apotheosis.
To be frank, the differences between this La Mer and Mother Goose Suite and Giulini’s previous recorded versions are minute, and if you have those earlier performances, you don’t really have to hear this. What’s more, recordings of the works featured in the programme are a dime a dozen these days, and there certainly are more distinctive performances of these French masterworks than Giulini’s. Despite this, as a document of sheer beauty of playing and of sound, it’s hard to surpass what Giulini and the Concertgebouw has achieved here. A fine disc, very sumptuously recorded.
- Album name: Debussy: La Mer; Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune; Ravel: Pavane pour une infante défunte; Ma Mère l’Oye
- Performers: Carlo Maria Giulini (conductor); Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
- Label: Sony SK 66832
- Sonics: Stereo DDD
- Total playing time: 64:03