When EMI made its first digital recording 1979, it made several telling choices. It picked conductor André Previn, then best known for his performances of English and Russian repertoire; the London Symphony Orchestra, then well known as the most versatile and virtuosic orchestra in the English capital; Suvi Raj Grubb and Christopher Parker, then EMI's finest classical producer and engineer combination; and, crucially, it picked a program of works by Claude Debussy, arguably the most colorful and sonically splendid orchestral composer in the standard repertoire. Back in the distant days of vinyl, the resulting performances were naturally only released on LP with all the flaws and imperfections that medium is heir to. But as reissued on a flawless CD in EMI's Great Recordings of the Century series, the results are frankly fabulous.
Though he had not touched the repertoire before, Previn turned out to be a great Debussy conductor. It's true that his Prélude á l'après midi d'un faune and Images are incredibly rich and lush, with bright, almost garish colors and warm, almost humid textures. But it is likewise true his interpretations are so sumptuous, sinuous, and sensuous that they are likely to stir even the most hard-hearted listener. The London Symphony plays with its trademark passionate professionalism and its long association with Previn gives the performance an added affectionate quality that is quite winning. Despite never having worked with digital technology before, Grubb and Parker do an incredible job of capturing the glorious sound of the London orchestra with an enormous dynamic range, a huge color palette, and a striking sense of time and place. Recorded in one take for each movement, everything about EMI's first digital recording is as good as it gets both technically and musically.