The greatest virtue of this five-disc set of the orchestral music of Debussy and Ravel conducted by Simon Rattle is the variety of the repertoire. In addition to such concert staples as Debussy's La Mer and Ravel's Boléro, there are Debussy's less familiar La boîte à joujoux and Ravel's Shéhérazade, as well as Percy Grainger's rarely played orchestrations of Debussy's Pagodas and Ravel's La vallée des cloches.
The set's greatest vice is the variability of the performances. Sometimes, as in the 2004 recording of La Mer with the Berliner Philharmoniker, the performances are superbly polished and exciting; listen to the ecstatic climax in the opening movement's coda. Sometimes, as in the 1989 recording of Images with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, the performances are scrappy and surprisingly sloppy; listen to the wavering tone and hesitant ensemble in the central movement's coda. And sometimes, as in the 1990 recording of Daphnis et Chloé ballet also with the Birmingham orchestra, the performance seems to be almost haphazard.
The one consistent thing about these performances is Rattle, and he's consistent only to the extent that he consistently misunderstands Debussy and Ravel. Instead of subtly blending, Rattle's colors are brilliantly blazing, as in his garish Boléro. Instead of gracefully flowing, Rattle's forms are abruptly contrasting, born out by his disjointed Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. Rattle's shapes are sharp cornered and hard edged, which renders his La Mer hard as ice. If the French Impressionists had instead been bold Italian late Romantics like Respighi or brutal Russian early modernists like Prokofiev, Rattle's interpretations would be closer to the mark. But in the final analysis, this five-disc set may be of interest only to listeners who feel like they have to hear everything Rattle does. EMI's digital sound is clean and bright.