I got to know Stephane Deneve from his glorious set of Roussel recordings for Naxos (2006-2010, 5 CDs) and his sensational trio of discs of music by Guillaume Connesson - 2 on DG (2016/18) and one on Chandos (2010). In Roussel, Deneve brings the music to life as never before, and Naxos provides shockingly good sound. In Connesson, he champions this incredible composer with riveting authority and brilliance - revealing his music to be positively dazzling and thoroughly irresistible. DG's recorded sound is stunning, as is the SACD from Chandos. (Incidentally, there is a 3rd CD on DG of this great composer's music as well, conducted by Jean-Christophe Spinosi.)
Deneve is also a splendid companion in concertos. He is an energetic and commanding presence on two of my favorite Poulenc recordings - with Eric Le Sage in the Piano Concerto, Two Piano Concerto and Aubade (2003/04, RCA), and with the Jussen brothers in the Double on DG (2017). He brings a level of orchestral precision and powerful support not often heard in concerto recordings.
So when SWR Classics recently collected together Deneve's complete Ravel recordings into an attractively priced boxed set, I jumped on it, puzzled why I hadn't explored these recordings, in their individual releases, before. (And I hope to review it in the near future.)
But while waiting for that to arrive, I found on my shelves Deneve's 2-disc Debussy collection for Chandos (2012, SACD), which I have no lasting memory of. That usually indicates I found it rather unremarkable. (Or maybe I just wasn't really in the mood for it at the time.) So now was a good time to give it a fresh listen while waiting for the Ravel to arrive. And I have just one word for it - WOW! How could I have overlooked this wonderful recording all this time?
Deneve's Debussy is simply some of the best I have ever heard, fully equal to the superb collection from Lan Shui on BIS, released around the same time (more below). Even compared with illustrious classics from Haitink (Concertgebouw/Philips), Boulez (Cleveland/DG), Dutoit (Montreal/Decca) and Previn (LSO/EMI), these two modern collections stand out.
Oh, for certain, Deneve has the benefit of superlative recorded sound - absolutely some of the best ever from Chandos (and a prime demonstration of the superiority of DSD recording techniques over standard red-book CD). Deneve also has the benefit of the wonderful Royal Scottish National Orchestra at his fingertips. And often times, these two factors are enough to constitute a good/successful recording these days. (I think immediately of John Wilson. Let's be frank - the real success of John Wilson's recordings lies with the playing of his incredible, hand-picked orchestra and the glamorous Chandos sound far and above the talents inherent in the conducting itself.) Deneve, on the other hand, displays rare musical insight, vision and true inspiration.
And his Debussy is simply intoxicating. All through my listening, I hear a ravishing orchestral response, in complete affinity with their conductor. Everywhere, the music soars with rapturous, singing lines in an almost operatic way. Yet there is also a transparency and atmospheric spaciousness which are simply incredible. The dynamic swells are masterfully executed, at once dramatic and eloquent, with purpose and direction within an overall scope, always at the service of the spirit and letter of the score. I even hear the exquisiteness of Ravel in places. The unified rapport between this orchestra and this conductor is a wonder to behold - rarely experienced, particularly on a recording.
Getting into the program itself - if one were to begin listening with La Mer, you might think my praises for this release are surely misguided, for this is the one relative disappointment of the set. And the Chandos engineers are largely to blame. Compared to the rest of the program, the sound here is a bit "misty" and distant, details are muffled and dynamics a little cramped. Deneve is up to snuff, though, with a musical expression which is elegant, naturally flowing and refreshingly unfussy. However, musical involvement is curtailed by the lack of sparkle and titillating details. The ending of the 1st section lacks power. And in the 3rd, there is no menace in the thunderstorms brewing at the beginning and the ending fails to produce enough adrenaline to get the blood pumping. Just listen to Lan Shui's exciting reading on BIS to hear what this one is missing.
Fortunately the attentive engineers caught the problems early on and made the necessary adjustments. Listening next to Nocturnes, the difference in recorded sound is striking. Suddenly the acoustic is much clearer. Details now emerge with clarity and focus, and the dynamic range is restored to its full splendor, allowing climaxes to open up and fill the hall effortlessly. And, amazingly, the acoustic is just as colorfully atmospheric and gorgeous as before, but now more spacious, airy and 3-dimensional.
And with it we behold the most glorious Nocturnes ever recorded. Listening to it here, the incredible soundworld Debussy creates with his magnificently innovative, forward-thinking orchestration is simply astonishing. I am amazed this was written as early as 1897! And I can't help but wonder if Stravinsky and Dutilleux could have evolved into the composers they were to become without Debussy before them.
So what makes this Nocturnes especially revelatory? Well, to start with, Deneve's understanding of the piece is everything we could hope for, with a true vision of the overall structure of the piece and a natural unfolding of the musical lines. Tempos, always such an important element, are perfectly judged. The 1st and 3rd movements move along with a natural flow and fluid elasticity which isn't stretched forward and back unnecessarily. And conversely, Fetes isn't too fast - proving it doesn't have to be hectic and breathless to be festive.
Each of the three movements is illuminated with its own unique character, individuality and atmosphere. Nuages transports us to a spacious, uninhabited landscape, but with orchestral colors in full bloom. And the English Horn solo is at once plaintive and sensuous. Fetes is gossamer and alive, dancing so merrily I envisioned a ballet troupe springing aloft. And for once, the central section, with its foretelling of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring (Ritual Action of the Ancestors), is not an awkward tempo adjustment, but a natural progression which Deneve masterfully comes out of and flows back into the recapitulation without a stumbling of pace, which is so often the case.
And finally we come to Sirenes. In this performance, the women's chorus creates a most incredible out-of-this-world atmosphere, sung perfectly in tune, and with a hushed vibrancy which is simply exquisite. Further, they are interpolated into the orchestral texture as rarely experienced. The chorus is distanced back into the mists, yet glows with perfect focus and "presence". The accomplishment of the Chandos engineers cannot be praised highly enough. I have never heard a more successful recording of this piece than this one.
Another fantastic performance here is the complete Images. Deneve is dazzling, conjuring up picturesque characterization and energetic involvement, perfumed with the intoxicating aroma and flavor of Tuscany. Gigues features a real oboe d'amore, and the 3rd section of Iberia (jour de fete) is as exciting as La Mer should have been, energized by exuberant tempos and the glittering, positively cinematic recording.
The glories of the set continue with Jeux and Printemps, brought brilliantly to life. Deneve continues to deliver vivid characterization, sweeping musical lines and many felicitous details which usually go by unnoticed.
Equally treasurable are the least-known (or should I say, "least-popular") works: March ecossaise, 2 orchestral movements from the cantata L'Enfant prodique, and Berceuse heroique. All wonderful indeed.
This is some of the most musically moving, masterful and thoroughly enraptured Debussy I can ever remember hearing. And though La Mer falls behind in distinction, it certainly isn't bad. It's just a little bland. But if it is your primary interest, there are other more rewarding accounts to be found, including the very exciting one from Shui (details next).
As to comparisons, I can be brief. There is really only one other recent set of recordings which I enjoyed as much - that from Lan Shui on BIS. His collection is more encompassing, expanding to 3 discs, and includes 2 major works Deneve doesn't - Khamma and La Boite a Joujoux (The Toy Box). And how fabulous they are! We also get gems such as the Saxophone Rapsodie and Danses Sacree et Profane.
Overall, Shui's Debussy is quite simply riveting - superbly played by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra and very well recorded. When compared with Deneve, Shui is even more colorful, luxurious and sometimes more leisurely. He can take his time to caress a phrase and love on the music a little more often than Deneve does, with an emphasis on lavish refinement. But Shui is often more exciting too, with tingling details always on display and a wide dynamic range. The variety and life he brings to this music is stunning. And BIS affords him gorgeous sound, which at the same time is even more detailed and dynamic than the Chandos.
Both sets are equally treasurable, illuminating and musically rewarding. And with superlative, state-of-the-art SACD sound, both should be considered absolutely indispensable. I do hope Deneve will eventually record a 3rd disc of Debussy's music to supplement his collection.