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SACD Review

Claude Debussy

  • Images for Orchestra
  • Jeux
  • La plus que lente
San Francisco Symphony Orchestra/Michael Tilson Thomas
SFS Media 821936-0069-2 Hybrid Multichannel SACD 60:21
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I had nothing but negative things to say regarding this team's otherwise acclaimed Tchaikovsky Fifth, one of the few times I broke sharply from the views of my (more informed) colleagues in the critical field. So, I'm happy to report that this stunning Debussy disc reaffirms Tilson Thomas as a veteran leader in his field. For starters, the sound – I listened in stereo – is a delight even on my modest system. Little details like the harp and percussion are rendered with richness and depth. Perhaps more importantly, Tilson Thomas captures the youthful excitement of his earlier efforts in Debussy, which were already excellent.

Thomas's Boston Images still rank among the best for the sheer "French" polish of that orchestra and the freshness of the approach. But the SFS sound easily outclasses the somewhat dated 1970's stereo picture on Deutsche Grammophon. Also, there is a maturity and a flexibility of pulse that not only makes up for any loss of excitement, but also convinces the orchestra to give 100%. Both live and on disc, I can sometimes find this partnership tepid. Not here, as the San Francisco players make simply gorgeous sounds. Whereas his Tchaikovsky on the same label was mannered and full of instances that drew attention away from the music, here everything is as natural as one could wish.

Jeux has never attained the popularity of Debussy's other major orchestral works, in part because the subject matter – a tennis match – doesn't excite most of us when we think of musical imagery. Make no mistake; there is a significant difference between a good performance and a bad one, and even a novice listener can tell. I once read a critic who had "never heard a bad performance of Beethoven's Fifth". Lucky him, frankly, but Debussy simply doesn't work that way. A bad performance of Jeux – Rattle's dull Birmingham issue, for example – will prove a quick cure for insomnia. This is the exact opposite, an engaging and committed view that shows both orchestra and conductor in top form. The encore is a mere filler, and comes from the same label's inconsistent but imaginative encores disc. We could have wished for something more hearty No matter, it's clear that this disc belongs in every serious French music collection.

Copyright © 2017, Brian Wigman