DEBUSSY: Iberia; Estampes: No. 2; La Mer; Trois Nocturnes – Paris Conservatoire Orch./ Piero Coppola – Dutton

by | Oct 30, 2011 | Classical Reissue Reviews

DEBUSSY: Iberia; Estampes: No. 2 Soiree dans Grenade (orch. Coppola); La Mer; Trois Nocturnes – Paris Conservatoire Orchestra/ Piero Coppola – Dutton CDBP 9806, 64:11 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:
Milanese composer-conductor Piero Coppola (1888-1971), along with compatriots Vittorio Gui and Victor de Sabata, evolved into a fine interpreter of the music of Debussy, leaving an important legacy that should reign as does that of Desiree Ingelbrecht. In the early Debussy inscriptions Coppola made in the 1920s with a pick-up “Gramophone” orchestra, a decisively meager vibrato dominates, but by the 1932-1938 period of these recordings by the Paris Conservatory Orchestra, the sound has assumed a more romantic ardor. Coppola had been present in 1911 when Debussy himself came to Milan to conduct a concert of music; and although Debussy’s baton technique failed to impress the musicians, and Gui had to take over, for Coppola it proved “a life-changing event,” and he then pursued Debussy’s music with a will.
The Debussy Iberia (11-12 March 1935) enjoys a diaphanously exotic sense of color, from the festive colors of the feria to the distant tolling bells that help paint the “perfumes of the night.” What impresses in Coppola’s rendition are the smoothness of transition, the seamless alteration of tempo, and the plastic sense of rhythm. The PCO woodwind complement proves no less expert in delivering the staccati and punctuated chords that pepper the score while the strings ply every kind of articulation to instill the human panorama of festive gestures that whirls through our minds.  Coppola himself orchestrated several of Debussy’s piano pieces, and the natural Spanish eroticism of An Evening in Granada sachets, sways, and luxuriates in richly defined textures for what had been “filler” to the Iberia set. A small harp cadenza places icing on an already diaphanous cake.
Coppola recorded La Mer 25 and 27 October 1932 at Salle Rameau, Paris. The very opening chords shimmer with seascape mystery; and though the tempos move briskly, we feel languor and expanse rather than rushed tides. One might consider a comparison of Coppola’s splendid serenity in the opening section with Koussevitzky’s Boston inscription from virtually the same period. Coppola imposes a fine restraint on the closing page of “From Dawn Till Noon at Sea,” allowing the sea to merge with a vivid, limitless horizon. The PCO woodwinds once again reign in the magical “Play of the Waves,” the movement sparkling and lustrous, with passing glissandi and wind trills in perfect articulation. The mercurial, erotic temper of the shifting rhythmic contours proves a miracle in itself; one must speculate what Coppola would think of Celibidache’s bloated versions of La Mer, as they run almost ten minutes longer. The ominous “Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea” moves with sustained, repressed fury, the rhythmic impulse inexorable as fate (or Toscanini). Festive colors emerge (though without that special trumpet part which conductors like Mitropoulos added to invoke Triton himself), the PCO brass in perfect balance, the last upward runs a virtual water spout of energy.
The Trois Nocturnes (rec. 18 May 1938, in Studio Albert, Paris), conceived as a triptych  in grisailles–studies in gray–open with Coppola’s studied Nuages, moody, deliberate, and haunted by an almost gothic menace in the vivid woodwinds and bass harmonies. The viola becomes quite prominent, then it subsumes into an amorphous ocean of wind and harp colors. The impression of space and time dissolves in the last pages, as though the performance had been led by Marcel Proust. Fetes comes hard on the heels of the ephemeral Nuages, all scintillating light and skittish, blustery energy. The march that evolves from afar possesses at first a mystical, vaporous character; but it soon assumes colossal proportions like Mussorgsky’s Bydlo, plus a definitive snare drum and cymbals.
Finally, Sirenes, those nemeses of Odysseus, undulate in plastic wordless chorus (unaccredited). The facility of movement in tandem with the erotic power of the textures makes us think that Coppola shared some of Stokowski’s penchant for the sensuous possibilities in music. The deft, secure intonation of the orchestra and chorus well contributes to what remains the Coppola legend. This is a treasure to own in the Debussy discography.
–Gary Lemco

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