Debussy / Prelude & Ravel / Rapsodie / Monteux

  • With two Nearly Triple Plus (A++ to A+++) sides, this original stereo copy of CS 6248 (similar to the Decca above) is hard to beat
  • This copy is HUGE, rich, clear, dynamic, with exceptionally three-dimensional hall space (the snare is WAY back there)
  • Superb 1961 All Tube recordings of groundbreaking masterpieces by Debussy and Ravel
  • The exceptionally natural recording Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun lets you appreciate the wonder of the piece

Transparent and spacious, wide and naturally staged, clean yet rich, with zero coloration, there is nothing here to fault. Nearly Triple Plus all the way. So relaxed and natural you will soon find yourself lost in the music.

It’s yet another remarkable disc from the Golden Age of Vacuum Tube Recording. We were impressed with the fact that it excelled in so many areas of reproduction. The illusion of disappearing speakers is one of the more attractive aspects of the sound here, pulling the listener into the space of the concert hall in an especially engrossing way.

What amazing sides such as these have to offer is not hard to hear:

  • The biggest, most immediate staging in the largest acoustic space
  • The most Tubey Magic, without which you have almost nothing. CDs give you clean and clear. Only the best vintage vinyl pressings offer the kind of Tubey Magic that was on the tapes in 1961
  • Tight, note-like, rich, full-bodied bass, with the correct amount of weight down low
  • Natural tonality in the midrange — with all the instruments of the orchestra having the correct timbre
  • Transparency and resolution, critical to hearing into the three-dimensional space of the concert hall
  • No doubt there’s more but we hope that should do for now. Playing the record is the only way to hear all of the above

Production and Engineering

Kenneth Wilkinson engineered in Kingsway Hall. There is a richness to the sound that is exceptional, yet clarity and transparency are not sacrificed in the least.

It’s as wide, deep and three-dimensional as any, which is, of course, all to the good, but what makes the sound of these recordings so special is the timbral accuracy of the instruments in every section.

This is the kind of record that will make you want to take all your heavy vinyl classical pressings and put them in storage. They cannot begin to sound the way this record sounds. (Before you put them in storage or on Ebay please play them against this pressing so that you can be confident in you decision to rid yourself of their mediocrity.)

Wilkie and the Decca Tree

Wilkinson discussed the use of the Decca tree in an interview with Michael H. Gray in 1987.

You set up the Tree just slightly in front of the orchestra. The two outriggers, again, one in front of the first violins, that’s facing the whole orchestra, and one over the cellos. We used to have two mikes on the woodwind section – they were directional mikes, 56’s in the early days. You’d see a mike on the tympani, just to give it that little bit of clarity, and one behind the horns. If we had a harp, we’d have a mike trained on the harp. Basically, we never used too many microphones. I think they’re using too many these days.

Wilkinson’s method of selecting recording venues was recounted in an article on concert hall orchestral sound written by the conductor Denis Vaughan in 1981:

I have recorded in many halls throughout Europe and America and have found that halls built mainly of brick, wood and soft plaster, which are usually older halls, always produce a good natural warm sound. Halls built with concrete and hard plaster seem to produce a thin hard sound and always a lack of warmth and bass. Consequently, when looking for halls to record in I always avoid modern concrete structures.

Wilkinson went on to engineer at hundreds of recording sessions. He was said to have worked with more than 150 conductors. He was the engineer most responsible for Richard Itter’s Lyrita recordings (which Decca produced). Itter always requested Wilkinson as engineer, calling him “a wizard with mikes.”

Wilkinson’s stereo recordings with the conductor Charles Gerhardt (including a series of Reader’s Digest recordings and the RCA Classic Film Scores series) and the producer John Culshaw made his name and reputation known to record reviewers and audiophiles. His legacy was extended by the fact that he trained every Decca engineer from 1937 onwards.

Wilkinson, always called “Wilkie” in the music business, was known as a straight-talking man, interested only in the quality of the work. The Decca producer Ray Minshull (1934–2007) recalled Wilkinson’s methods in an interview with Jonathan Valin in March 1993:

Everyone loved and respected Wilkie, but during a session he could be exacting when it came to small details. He would prowl the recording stage with a cigarette – half-ash – between his lips, making minute adjustments in the mike set-up and in the orchestral seating. Seating arrangement was really one of the keys to Wilkie’s approach and he would spend a great deal of time making sure that everyone was located just where he wanted them to be, in order for the mikes to reflect the proper balances.Of course, most musicians had a natural tendency to bend toward the conductor as they played. If such movement became excessive, Wilkie would shoot out onto the stage and chew the erring musician out before reseating him properly. He wanted the musicians to stay exactly where he had put them. He was the steadiest of engineers, the most painstaking and the most imaginative. In all of his sessions, he never did the same thing twice, making small adjustments in mike placement and balances to accord with his sense of the sonic requirements of the piece being played.

His recordings were characterised by the producer Tam Henderson in an appreciation: “The most remarkable sonic aspect of a Wilkinson orchestral recording is its rich balance, which gives full measure to the bottom octaves, and a palpable sense of the superior acoustics of the venues he favored, among them London’s Walthamstow Assembly Hall and The Kingsway Hall of revered memory”.

On retiring, Wilkinson received a special gold disc produced by Decca with extracts of his recordings. He received three Grammys for engineering: 1973, 1975, and 1978. He also received an audio award from Hi-Fi magazine in 1981 and the Walter Legge Award in 2003 “…for extraordinary contribution to the field of recording classical music.”


Side One

Prelude A L’Apres Midi D’Un Faune

a – 1. Nuages
b – 2. Fêtes

Side Two

Ravel – Rapsodie Espagnole
a – 1. Prélude À La Nuit
b – 2. Malagueña
c – 3. Habanera
d – 4. Feria

Pavane Pour Une Infante Défunte

Rapsodie Espagnole

In 1907, two years after his fourth failed attempt to win the coveted Prix de Rome, Ravel produced two major works, both firsts for him and both capitalizing on his remarkable sensitivity to Spanish music. L’heure espagnole was his first opera; Rapsodie espagnole was his first published piece written specifically for orchestra. (As a matter of fact, one of its movements – the “Habanera” – was originally a two-piano piece, composed in 1895.)

Ravel’s extraordinary ability to create seemingly authentic Spanish music drew the admiration of no less an authority than the peerless Spaniard, Manuel de Falla. He spoke of the Rapsodie as “surprising one by its Spanish character, achieved through the free use of the modal rhythms and melodies and ornamental figures of our ‘popular’ music.”

The Rapsodie’s first movement, Prélude à la nuit (Prelude to the Night), begins with and is dominated by a four-note descending figure which later is brought into the Malagueña and Feria movements. The first three movements, small miracles of sensuous, exquisite color and understated elegance, stand as provocative arches through which one passes on the way to the dazzling finale – a short Impressionistic tone poem.

Orrin Howard

Afternoon of a Faun

Born in 1862 in St-Germain-en-Laye, France, Debussy entered the Paris Conservatoire at the age of ten, where he both excelled and startled professors with his defiance; he would reportedly sit at the piano and play chords that rejected all the textbook rules. Like many composers before and since, Debussy’s work was greatly inspired by poetry, and the composer was also friends with many of the day’s poets, including Stephane Mallarmé.

It was Mallarmé’s poem L’après-midi d’un faune (The Afternoon of a Faun) that inspired Debussy to write what was likely meant to be a three-part orchestral work with the titles Prélude, Interlude and Paraphrase finale. Debussy completed the Prelude in 1894 – as just a one-movement work. He revised it up until the very last minute and the premiere was at the Société Nationale de Musique in December 1894, with Gustave Doret conducting.

The flute’s theme, recurring throughout the work, represents the faun, though it is not intended as a literal translation of the poem. The line – solo at the very start – moves chromatically down to a tritone below the original pitch, then ascends back to the original pitch. The line progresses throughout the piece and its metamorphoses account for the Prelude’s richness of texture and harmony. We even hear Debussy’s increasing interest in non-Western scales and timbres (he would use the sounds of the Indonesian gamelan more in his later works, and continued to write using the whole-tone scale).

Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun is nothing if not a great timbral achievement. Debussy uses a relatively small orchestra by the standards of the late 19th century. Brass and percussion are all but omitted. Crotales, the only percussion, are used sparingly and expertly. The only brass are four horns, while the wind section includes a third flute and English horn.

Debussy also gives significant material to two harpists, and asks for a number of subtle shadings from the strings, including mutes, and playing sul tasto (on the fingerboard) and pizzicato techniques. Debussy produces a remarkable degree of color from his orchestra.

Mallarmé’s poem – about “a faun dreaming of the conquest of nymphs” – transitions between dream and reality, giving Debussy the perfect arena to explore his new language. Prelude stands as a turning point in music history and had profound effects on the generation of composers that followed. Debussy had established an incredibly innovative style – both in terms of the way the orchestra is treated, and in his approach to harmony and musical structure. In so doing, Debussy found the perfect way to capture the dream-state of the afternoon of the faun.

LA Phil

Debussy and Monteux

Claude Debussy was among the most influential composers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His mature compositions, distinctive and appealing, combined modernism and sensuality so successfully that their sheer beauty often obscures their technical innovation.

Debussy is considered the founder and leading exponent of musical Impressionism (although he resisted the label), and his adoption of non-traditional scales and tonal structures was paradigmatic for many composers who followed.

Debussy wrote successfully in most every genre, adapting his distinctive compositional language to the demands of each. His orchestral works, of which Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune and La mer (The Sea, 1905) are most familiar, established him as a master of instrumental color and texture.

It is this attention to tone color — his layering of sound upon sound so that they blend to form a greater, evocative whole — that linked Debussy in the public mind to the Impressionist painters.

Allen Schrott

Pierre Monteux

The record producer John Culshaw described Monteux as “that rarest of beings – a conductor who was loved by his orchestras … to call him a legend would be to understate the case.” Toscanini observed that Monteux had the best baton technique he had ever seen. Like Toscanini, Monteux insisted on the traditional orchestral layout with first and second violins to the conductor’s left and right, believing that this gave a better representation of string detail than grouping all the violins together on the left. On fidelity to composers’ scores, Monteux’s biographer John Canarina ranks him with Klemperer and above even Toscanini, whose reputation for strict adherence to the score was, in Canarina’s view, less justified than Monteux’s.

According to the biographical sketch in Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Monteux “was never an ostentatious conductor … [he prepared] his orchestra in often arduous rehearsals and then [used] small but decisive gestures to obtain playing of fine texture, careful detail and powerful rhythmic energy, retaining to the last his extraordinary grasp of musical structure and a faultless ear for sound quality.” Monteux was extremely economical with words and gestures and expected a response from his smallest movement. Record producer Erik Smith recalled of Monteux’s rehearsals with the Vienna Philharmonic for Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony and Brahms’s Second, “although he could not speak to the orchestra in German, he transformed their playing from one take to the next”.

The importance of rehearsal to Monteux was shown when, in 1923, Diaghilev asked him to conduct Stravinsky’s new Les Noces with no rehearsal, as the composer would already have conducted the first performance, Monteux following on from there. Monteux told the impresario “Stravinsky, ‘e can do what ‘e like, but I have to do what ze composer ‘as written.” Monteux’s self-effacing approach to scores led to occasional adverse comment; the music critic of The Nation, B. H. Haggin, while admitting that Monteux was generally regarded as one of the giants of conducting, wrote of his “repeatedly demonstrated musical mediocrity”. Other American writers have taken a different view. In 1957 Carleton Smith wrote, “His approach to all music is that of the master-craftsman. … Seeing him at work, modest and quiet, it is difficult to realize that he is a bigger box office attraction at the Metropolitan Opera House than any prima donna … that he is the only conductor regularly invited to take charge of America’s ‘big three’ – the Boston, Philadelphia and New York Philharmonic orchestras.” In his 1967 book The Great Conductors, Harold C. Schonberg wrote of Monteux, “[A] conductor of international stature, a conductor admired and loved all over the world. The word ‘loved’ is used advisedly.” Elsewhere, Schonberg wrote of Monteux’s “passion and charisma”. When asked in a radio interview to describe himself (as a conductor) in one word, Monteux replied, “Damned professional”.

Throughout his career Monteux suffered from being thought of as a specialist in French music. The music that meant most to him was that of German composers, particularly Brahms, but this was often overlooked by concert promoters and recording companies. Of the four Brahms symphonies, he was invited by the recording companies to record only one, the Second. Recordings of his live performances of the First and Third have been released on CD, but the discography in Canarina’s biography lists no recording, live or from the studio, of the Fourth. The critic William Mann, along with many others, regarded him as a “supremely authoritative” conductor of Brahms, though Cardus disagreed: “In German music Monteux, naturally enough, missed harmonic weight and the right heavily lunged tempo. His rhythm, for example, was a little too pointed for, say, Brahms or Schumann.” Gramophone’s reviewer Jonathan Swain contends that no conductor knew more than Monteux about expressive possibilities in the strings, claiming that “the conductor who doesn’t play a stringed instrument simply doesn’t know how to get the different sounds; and the bow has such importance in string playing that there are maybe 50 different ways of producing the same note”.

In his 2003 biography, John Canarina lists nineteen “significant world premieres” conducted by Monteux. In addition to Petrushka and The Rite of Spring is a further Stravinsky work, The Nightingale. Monteux’s other premieres for Diaghilev included Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé and Debussy’s Jeux. In the concert hall he premiered works by, among others, Milhaud, Poulenc and Prokofiev. In a letter of April 1914 Stravinsky wrote “everyone can appreciate your zeal and your probity in regard to the contemporary works of various tendencies that you have had occasion to defend.”

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