Stunning Debussy From San Francisco And MTT

Review by: David Hurwitz

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Artistic Quality: 10

Sound Quality: 10

Michael Tilson Thomas has always been an outstanding Debussy conductor. This release partially revisits his first recording of the composer’s music–a magical Images and Afternoon of a Faun with the Boston Symphony for Deutsche Grammophon. That version remains a reference for the Images, and this remake, happily, is just as good but different enough to justify a new listen.

This is the sort of recording that can only happen when a conductor and orchestra have known each other and worked together for many years. In general, Thomas’ tempos have increased a bit, especially in the languorous central movement of Iberia, but his underlying firmness of rhythm supports such an organic plasticity of tempo and sensitivity to textural balance that there are moments, especially in Gigues (and later in Jeux) that the music seems to breathe with an independent life. You aren’t conscious of tunes and accompaniments at all–just a sort of shimmering unity of sound. It’s really pretty amazing.

These are also among the most sensuous versions of these pieces on disc, but Thomas’ sensuality isn’t self-indulgent or droopy. Just the opposite. It consists of a razor-sharp focus on every jet of color, every murmur of the violins, ripple of the harp, or tap of the tambourine–always placed with exquisite sensitivity to dynamics and the musical context. You might at first feel, for example, that Rondes de printemps has too soft an edge, but then a sudden surge of energy, aided and abetted by the lively basic tempo, gives the music an irresistible jolt. In Jeux, another work that Tilson Thomas recorded previously (for Sony during his tenure in London), this attention to texture and balance provides a firmness of shape and sense of direction you might never have suspected.

The encore, La plus que lente, first appeared a while ago on a disc of orchestral miniatures, but it finds a logical second home here. Despite a couple of years’ separation in recording dates, the sonics are consistently excellent, the audience admirably silent. Tilson Thomas adds to the booklet a personal appreciation of the music that, unlike so many similar efforts where the artist speaks, sounds thoughtful rather than merely narcissistic. This disc strikes me as something of a milestone in the partnership of MTT and San Francisco–fresh evidence, if any were needed, that there is no substitute for a mature relationship between conductor and orchestra in repertoire for which they both have an evident affinity.



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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Images: MTT/Boston (DG); Boulez/Clevelend (Sony); This One


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