Debussy Jeux Debussy Matthews Preludes Hallé

Déjà Review: this review was first published in April 2009 and the recording is still available. Bob Briggs passed away in 2011.

Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
Jeux – poème dansé 
Préludes (orch. Colin Matthews) 
Colin Matthews (b. 1946)
Postlude: Monsieur Croche
Hallé Orchestra/Sir Mark Elder
rec. 2007/08, The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, UK
Hallé CDHLL7518 [74]

I have known Jeux for more years than I care to remember but I am still not really sure if I like the piece that much. I couldn’t care less about the rather silly scenario for the ballet. What will always matter, in the long run, is the music and, fantastic and phantasmagorical as it is, I am not sure that this is the towering masterpiece some, such as Boulez, would like us to believe it to be. Certainly a performance as committed, and well thought out, as this one could do a lot to change my mind. Sir Mark has seen how the structure of the piece works and he holds together all the various strands with seeming ease. This is a fine performance and one to which I shall return in my quest for a full understanding of this elusive music.

Despite being a master orchestrator, Debussy too often left the orchestrations of his works either entirely or in part, to others, André Caplet and Charles Koechlin being the two best known of his collaborators. I am not complaining, for Debussy’s is the finest of music. Over the years many people have orchestrated and/or arranged for other media, pieces by Debussy. Heifetz’s superb arrangement of Prélude à l’après midi d’un faune for violin and piano springs to mind, as does Stokowski’s magnificent orchestral transcription of La cathédrale engloutie, from the first book of Préludes pour piano. The list goes on and on, with entries from too many composers to mention here and now. However, no-one has set about turning the complete Préludes into orchestral pieces, until Colin Matthews, the Hallé Orchestra’s associate composer, at the behest of Mark Elder, over a period of five years arranged and orchestrated the 24 piano Préludes. He has received great critical acclaim for his achievement. This disk presents half of his versions – the other 12 can be found on Hallé CDHLL7513 – together with a special postlude he has created for the set.

The question must be – has Matthews been successful in his endeavours? The answer is that, to some extent, he has been. These are not mere direct transcriptions, sometimes Matthews has composed extra bars to turn the Prélude into his own vision, and when he has hit exactly the right stance – with or without his extras – he is seen to his best advantage. For instance, La Sérénade interrompue employs very comical bassoons in a perfect realisation of the original. At the other extreme, Des pas sur la neige – which, in my opinion, is possibly the most perfect musical composition ever written – seems to show us the entire human condition in music. It is of the utmost simplicity and composed for the humble keyboard yet speaks a thousand different voices. Matthews’s version seems overwrought, too precious, the desolate landscape is missing. Indeed, when it started I didn’t even recognise the piece! After this, I decided that the best way to listen to these pieces is to try and forget that they are actually Debussy’s Préludes and think of them as original orchestral pieces. Then they become fascinating and beautiful. Matthews’ own postlude is a racy little thing, full of fun things, and in a kind of Debussyian style. It makes a suitable conclusion to a very interesting disk, for, although I am not entirely won over by Matthews’ work on the Debussy Préludes they certainly should be heard for he has much to show us. The recorded sound is excellent, Gerald Larner’s notes, in the booklet, are very good and the Hallé is on top form.

Bob Briggs

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