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50 of 50 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon February 17, 2004
Even though Boulez is renowned for bringing discipline to his orchestras, I still never cease to marvel at how he pulled off these simply seamless, splendid performances. Discipline is of the utmost importance with Debussy: a brass sections that doesn't have its dynamics perfectly under control can destroy "La Mer" in any number of places. The same can be said of the female chorus in "Nocturnes: Sirenes." We have all heard the wobbly, out-of-control chorus in Sirenes, that demolishes all of the splendid orhcestral work that preceded it.
On the other hand, discipline can go overboard and turn into a rigid mechanical performance, and nobody needs to hear an orchestra going through the motions, hitting every note perfectly, but rendering a performance bereft of any passion whatsoever. The trick is to walk the line perfectly between being disciplined and being mechanical, and Boulez has indeed pulled this off.
It is just wonderful to hear a smoothly modulated brass section playing its part with the right level of nuance, and a woodwind section dealing with Debussy's challenging rhythms with ease and comfort. The string section also play their parts perfectly.
I also must tip my hat to Franklin Cohen for his performance in as fine a Rhapsodie as I have ever heard.
Overall, this is an endlessly pleasing Debussy disc. The casual listener can simply enjoy Debussy's music on its own merits, while the more serious listener can enjoy diving into the intricacies of Debussy's score, appreciating the splendid job that Boulez & the Cleveland Orchestra has done.
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34 of 36 people found the following review helpful
on June 19, 2002
Let's face it: there are many fine Debussy recordings on the market, and "Jeux" and "La Mer" have been recorded often. I especially like Dutoit's recording with the Montreal orchestra, and Haitink's with the Concertgebouw from the 1970's (which as part of a two-disc set is also quite a bargain).
But if you are looking for a version in clear, modern sound, this might be the one. Boulez is just about perfect for this music, with his emphasis on clarity, coupled with a somewhat unsentimental approach.
Deutsche Grammophon's recording is outstanding. Even in the loudest passages of "La Mer" for example, every instrumental strand can still be heard.
The Cleveland Orchestra is, well, the Cleveland Orchestra - an incomparable group that is worth sampling any time, in any repertoire. Their playing here appears so effortless - which of course it isn't - and that illusion only heightens the mood created by the relaxed brilliance of Debussy's writing.
A great recording, for fans of Boulez, the orchestra, and of course these magnificent, glittering Debussy scores.
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23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon June 23, 2007
I join the throng of five-star reviews for this fabulous CD of Debussy specialties including La Mer and Nocturnes. While Pierre Boulez clearly has the training, background, intuition and temperament to define these exquisite works, it is hard to imagine the bad press this CD received when it came out, mainly in England, where one critic said Boulez "eviscerated" the first movement of La Mer.

That's nonsense, of course. Boulez's performances in these four staples from the Debussy repertoire -- Nocturnes, Rhapsodie for clarinet & piano (or orchestra) with Franklin Cohen, Jeux, and the incomparable La Mer -- are the most subtly inflected readings of this music I've yet heard. No conductor reins in the orchestra the way Boulez does to allow Debussy colors and shifting emotions come through simultaneous with the most exposed solo playing on CD.

I've heard many great performances of these scores romanticized by Stokowski and given elegant linear projection by Haitink and I've heard poor performances from big name conductors like Charles Munch and Neemi Jarvi. The thread between them all has been this -- they all treat this music like it is romantic music, especially the closing pages of La Mer where the score gives added weight to the brass and FF markings. Boulez is the only conductor I know that controls the orchestra in these moments and presents this music as the gossamer imitation it is -- French impressionism, where subjects are hinted, not spoken or shouted.

I owned this CD some years ago when I was first seriously investigating these scores. It didn't do much for me then and I sold it, recently buying another used copy from an Amazon vendor. I didn't know what to think of it the first time; it was sufficiently different from anything I'd ever heard. Since then, I've sought a version that brings out the shimmering elements of impressionism, without success until today.

Critics were agreed that Boulez's first recording of this music, many years ago on Columbia (now Sony), was a bit on the clinical side. I've never heard that recording but can attest no such criticism applies here. Unless you want French impressionism applied romantically, you will love these intimate and subtle interpretations of Debussy's greatest music.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
Boulez has had a long association with The Cleveland Orchestra.George Szell discovered the young Boulez and was one of the first to recognize his talent, his intellectual approach to music. This is a great synergistic combination. Boulez always brings clarity and precision to his interpretations,always with a deep focused musicianship. Nothing is sacrificed here in Debussy as say in his Mahler. We sense this impassivness less in Debussy because it is more simply bringing timbral clarity and a rhythmic discipline to the music. If these elements are missing in Debussy the result can sound like film music.with obvious emphasis on the melodic shape suppressing the pure colour, and we have heard this numerously."La Mer" here still blinds us with its surging crescendo- brass, the noon sun bursting against the sea Boulez also has no equal in clarifying divisi strings. The "Nocturnes" as well Boulez and Clevelnad bring a compactness of expression. They maintain the characterizations here. Colours are goal-oriented and controlled.This recording will undoubtedly with time be considered the classic Debussy.
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21 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on June 5, 2000
Pierre Boulez must be numbered among the greatest conductors of the twentieth century. In these recordings he does a magnificent job. In four stylistically different pieces by Claude Debussy, he draws beauty and drama from sometimes conflicted music.
Boulez has just the right gentle touch in his conducting to make the Nocturnes soothingly lyric without being too mellow.
The premiere Rhapsodie is a wonderful intrigue. Franklin Cohen plays the clarinet lead of this piece with style.
The Jeux is delightfully entertaining. I especially like the Cleveland brass on this piece. Weaving in and out of the background of the strings, it paints some great musical images.
La Mer is for me the high point of the disc. Its representation of the power of the sea is stunning. Tossed to and fro between tunes, never clinging to one too long, it becomes a masterpiece in the able hands of Boulez.
At 70.58, there is not an uninteresting moment on this recording. Boulez shows here why he is the master of this repertoire. I recommend this disc.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
I can't think of a better introduction to the music of Claude Debussy than this Deutsche Grammophon disc where Pierre Boulez leads the Cleveland Orchestra in four legendary orchestral works. Debussy's music has been called "Impressionistic" because of the vividness of his colours and the vagueness of his forms. The exact large-scale organization of many of his works confound scholars still today. However, the fuzzy textures are worked up through a myriad of small details, and Boulez gives one the best of both worlds in keeping those individual strands clear and distinct while trying to keep the work as a whole coherent. It's also one of the best engineered discs I've even encountered, a wonderful representation of dynamic range and performance space.

Nearly any classical listener will know "La Mer" (1903-1905), one of the most unusual pieces to have entered the standard repertoire. For me, the other pieces here proved even more rewarding. I love the "Nocturnes" triptych of 1899. Its first two movements evoke constrasting aspects of the night, moonlit serenity and the bustle of celebrations. The third movement, however, brings the music to something else entirely with a beautiful female chorus, one of the first uses of the wordless chorus in classical music. The "Premiere Rhapsody" for clarinet and orchestra (1909-10) is a revolutionary new kind of concerto. Not concertante at all, it rather features one instrument as a key line among the whole orchestral texture, and looks forward to Berio's "Chemins" series and Takemitsu's late concerti. The ballet "Jeux" (1912) has been called one of the 20th century's least known modernist achievements for its weird harmonies and constant changes in rhythms; alas that it was eclipsed by the "Rite of Spring" a few weeks later!

As a fan of 20th century modernism and afterward--composers like Boulez and other Darmstadt figures, the spectralists, Per Norgard, and Sofia Gubaidulina--I think it's a pity that Debussy is all too often assumed to be a pastime for light music listeners. The guy was working with whole tone scales and gamelan sonorities, constantly defeating expectations of harmonic resolution, and opening up a world of timbre where a piano reduction showed a noticeable loss of the work's essence. If you like contemporary music, you owe it to yourself to get to know his work, and this is a good disc to start.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
There are many fine recorded performances of Debussy's masterpiece "La Mer." Some of the best are by Munch/BSO, Dutoit/Montreal, Casadesus/Lille, and Plasson/Toulouse. In addition, we have the classic readings of Karajan/Berlin, Szell/Cleveland and Toscanini/NBC, not to mention the outstanding DVD of Abbado and the Lucerene Orch. The present disc by Boulez and Cleveland joins the crowd with a very clear, clean performance that allows you to hear all the inner voices. Someone once said that Boulez doesn't do much as a conductor but just "moves things aside," or fine-tunes the balances so every part comes through. With this approach, you can clearly see that Debussy is one of Stravinsky's influences; "La Mer" is music without melody, based on harmony and timbre. This performance may not have the approach for all, and many may like the sea with more mist, so Plasson or Casadesus may be the versions for you. But, this is a very beautiful disc with excellent sound, and, of course, the Cleveland Orchestra plays beautifully. It's your choice.

P. S.! The Haitink is very interesting, with all the inner details very clearly delineated, but I can't recommend it as highly as the above versions, even though "BBC Music Mag." likes it, because it's too cool and calculating.
Abbado with the Lecurne Fest. Orch. on EuroArts DVD is just the opposite; it's the most ecstatic!!! Claudio almost becomes airborne while conducting "The Play of the Waves," the second movement. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!!!
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on June 21, 2011
In the mid-1990s, I heard Boulez play and rehearse Debussy's "Jeux" and "La mer" with the Cleveland Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. "Jeux" had long been one of my favorite pieces and their rendition was just beautiful. But it was "La mer" that stunned me. I'd always considered it a somewhat stodgy, even mildly embarrassing work. The Boulez/Cleveland rendition was a revelation: incredibly subtle instrumental combinations, emphasis on soft dynamics and sparing use of fortes, precise ensemble. Boulez had taken a work that has been performed extensively, reimagined it and realized a version which tapped the music's potential. The latent essence of "La mer" was revealed.

The rest of the recording is very, very good as well. "Jeux" is delicate and expertly paced. The "Three Noctures" are just perfect. I think the Clarinet Rhapsody, a work which can be a bit mawkish, benefits from the same super-refined treatment which the performers gave "La mer".

Finally, the sonics are just great. The last couple of years I've been using thius disc when I demo audio equipment. It's superb.

I join the other reviewers in extolling this wonderful recording.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on October 19, 2006
When SF Symphony played Jeux last year, MTT described to the audience why the orchestra loved to play the piece, calling it "chamber music for orchestra". Their performance brought out details of the score that demonstrated why they were so enthusiastic. I went through a number of recordings searching for one that provided the same clarity I heard that night, allowing the listener to appreciate the interplay of the various parts. This is it. And it comes with a wonderful version of La Mer as well.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon December 5, 2011
It may be worth noting that Debussy's favorite painter was (according to the Steven Schwartz, at least) Botticelli. Now Debussy's music is clearly impressionistic, and his sacrifice of classical forms to the advantage of organically unfolding semi-narratives filled with and breathing with colors created by unusual harmonics and harmonic processions does carry more than intermittent relation to what contemporary painters were doing, but Debussy's preference may also illustrate an important point: the relationship between his music and impressionistic painting isn't stronger than to license interpretations based on clarity, structure and crispness - it is perfectly reasonable, at least, to think that there is more to Debussy's music than pure impression, that it is more than just a collection of scents, shadows, colors and fleeting figures, good for evoking atmospheres and sensations (though it is certainly that as well) but little else.

Boulez's take on Debussy is certainly more than a wallow in warmly diffuse textures. In fact, Boulez takes meticulous care with those textures, and rarely will you have heard a finer, more precise realization of the sonorous effects Debussy may have been aiming for. His La Mer is in fact one of the best on disc (perhaps next to the Haitink performance). It is certainly not without feeling, but the added clarity, the sharper image (one doesn't need to make it fuzzy to achieve atmosphere and color) makes it sound fresher and more powerful than most other versions. The Nocturnes, similarly, is wonderfully fresh and engaging. Boulez really find the rhythmic pulse of this music and the effect is at times revelatory.

Of course, the performances aren't exactly hurt by the magnificent playing of the Cleveland Orchestra & Chorus, who provide such marvelous nuances, gorgeous phrasing and precision it almost hurts. The same goes for the Première Rhapsodie, in which they are joined by the excellent Franklin Cohen; with the magnificent orchestral accompaniment they manage to make this one into a piece of almost otherworldly beauty, longing, mystery and sensuality. Then of course there is the late masterwork, the ballet Jeux. More complex and ambigous than many of Debussy's earlier works, Boulez - with his uncanny ability to highlight the important lines and clarify what is going on - turns in what must surely be a peerless performance of the work; never has the playfulness of the score been more deftly realized (I believe), yet at no cost to the beauty of the score, the wonderful textures and its dramatic undertones. Everything is given spectacular sound to boot, and this is surely one of the great Debussy recordings in the catalogue; a must.
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