DEBUSSY: Préludes (Orch. by Peter Breiner) – Royal Scottish Nat. Orch./ Jun Märkl – Naxos 8.572584, 76:31 ****:
Having just reviewed a recording of Debussy’s Préludes for piano, which necessitated a lot of listening and re-listening to the music, I might be expected to want a break from these twenty-four Impressionistic miniatures. But on the contrary, I’m inspired to see just how Slovak conductor and composer Peter Breiner approaches the task of orchestrating these works that seem to lend themselves so readily to orchestral dressing-up.
Interestingly, like Schumann with his character pieces for piano, Debussy attached names to each of the Préludes only after he had completed it, thus tending to downplay the pictorial element. But even if his chief aim was to create musical atmosphere rather than musical imagery, the suggestive titles and coloristic effects in the piano writing provide incentive to turn many of the Préludes into miniature symphonic poems. So Ondine, based on the tale of the water nymph who marries a mortal, invites orchestration with watery overtones (shades of La mer), while Minstrels and Général Lavine – eccentric call for the brash antics of the pit orchestra—percussion and brass to the fore.
Earlier, Naxos released a series of Peter Breiner’s orchestral suites based on music from Janáček operas. These received varying critical responses though for the most part reactions were favorable. However, some critics remarked that Breiner’s orchestral palette was more sumptuous, sometimes to the point of tackiness, than Janáček’s—probably more of an issue if you’re very familiar with the operas themselves. Of course, that’s not an issue with orchestrating Debussy’s piano music. In this case, the expectation is rather naturally, and somewhat unfairly, to anticipate that the orchestrator will mimic Debussy’s orchestral sound. In some instances, Breiner does seem to take his cue from Debussy’s late orchestral music; in a couple of the pieces I noticed a canny resemblance to the sounds Debussy produced in Images pour Orchestre and his strange little ballet Jeux. This is true of Breiner’s treatment of Voiles (“Sails”), the witty La sérénade interrompue (“Interrupted Serenade”), and La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune (“The Terrace of the Moonlit Audiences”). But oftentimes, Breiner’s orchestrations sound substantially riper and thicker than Debussy’s mostly are. This is not a bad thing, however. Breiner’s orchestrations often recall Ravel’s in their coloristic effects, especially in the use of winds and percussion.
Occasionally, Breiner stumbles, and that charge of tackiness seems appropriate in the case of his treatment of La fille aux cheveux de lin (“The Girl with the Flaxen Hair”). Breiner gives first clarinet, then violin, then muted trumpet extended solos that tip Debussy’s dreamily nostalgic piece over into the realm of the maudlin. In fact, a performer of the piano original has to strike a fine balance in order to avoid turning the piece into pure schmaltz.
It’s instructive to compare Breiner’s orchestrations with those of a recent competitor: Colin Matthews, whose orchestral version of the Préludes was recorded by Mark Elder and the Hallé Orchestra. Matthews’ subdued version of La fille aux cheveux de lin avoids the pitfall that ensnares Breiner. Another illuminating contrast is between Breiner’s and Matthews’ treatment of Général Lavine – eccentric. Breiner’s orchestration draws on the comic potential of bassoons and sand block to portray the American juggler and clown, General Lavine. Matthews turns to saxophone and trombone to produce the same effect and creates a piece that sounds like Satie channeling Debussy! Very different, and here, again, I prefer Matthews. Elsewhere, however, the rival versions don’t indicate a clear winner but instead present two master orchestrators making different, equally effective choices. If you have the Matthews orchestrations on disc, you may want to get the Breiner and carry out your own comparisons. If you don’t have either, it’s difficult to recommend one over the other.
Conductor Jun Märkel, who has recorded Debussy’s complete orchestral music for Naxos, switches orchestras, from L’Orchestre National de Lyon, where he acted as music director for six years, to the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, which plays very well for him. Their Debussian credentials don’t seem to be any less sound than the French orchestra’s, and of course Märkel’s experience with Debussy was undoubtedly a help in getting just the sound he wanted from the Scottish band. Naxos’s recording is crisp and colorful, matching the music.