Isn't It about time that Debussy - "that great painter of dreams", as he was so inconsiderately dubbed - was relieved of the "impressionistic" label? It's partly his own fault. He was always too ready to supply painterly quotations about colour and light and the appliance of well-mixed orchestral pigments. His soul was "iron grey" - not just any old grey, but "iron grey". And grey, in all its many hues, was the colour of his cloud-painting, Nuages, the first of his Nocturnes. The painter Whistler was his inspiration there.
But hearing it again on Sunday in the intriguing first half of Riccardo Chailly's London Symphony Orchestra concert, I was doubly convinced that there never was, never has been, never will be anything "impressionistic" about Debussy's orchestral music. The term, by its very nature, implies textural vagueness, and there is nothing, frankly, vaguer than vague Debussy. Chailly would never countenance it. Indeed, he took us to the other extreme with colour and contour so sharply etched as to suggest not paint and canvas, but celluloid in the digital age.
His "cloud painting" was notable for the "presence" of string and wind writing, the plangency of the cor anglais solos. And when the "fantastic procession" of FÃªtes began its approach, you could reach out and touch the three muted trumpets. Distant, yes, but perfectly in focus.
Debussy's "dreams" were then unceremoniously urbanised, torn from French sensibilities and reinvented in the music of Edgar VarÃ¿se - not just a passion but a cause cÃ©lÃ¿bre of Chailly's. There was Antony Beaumont's chamber orchestra arrangement of the Verlaine setting "Un grand sommeil noir" - all lower strings and tolling harp - and there was Offrandes: Debussy's world Latinised, not just in the choice of poems (Chilean and Mexican) but in the hot, dusty, streetwise percussion. If we're looking for another label, then "surreal" will do. Mireille Delunsch sang them with deliciously French intonation.
And the bugle that sang along with her, multiplied on and off stage in the ever expanding horizons of Mahler's First Symphony. This had to have been one of the most satisfying accounts we've heard in the capital since Leonard Bernstein showed us the way.
Chailly makes that vital connection between the letter and spirit of the score. He is punctilious about the often bewildering demands of Mahler's written score, going flat-out for the wild tempo contrasts, pushing the dynamic extremes all the way so that a solo bassoon really does have something to shout about in the lumpen landler of the second movement and the tarnished klezmer band of the third is bigger on enthusiasm than finesse. Colour, character, and such heartfelt phrasing as only the true Mahlerian can coax from an orchestra. The LSO played the hell out of it.
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