Pablo Heras-Casado / Philharmonia Orchestra

Debussy: La Mer; Le Martyre de saint Sébastien; Symphonic Fragments

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There hasn't exactly been a flood of recordings marking the centenary of Debussy's death in 1918, but here's a fitting observance from Pablo Heras-Casado, featuring a Philharmonia Orchestra that's absolutely at the top of its game and able to follow the Spanish conductor through his low-volume but intense Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. The program is an intelligent one for general listeners, pairing distinctive readings of two standards with the more unusual Fragments Symphoniques from Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien (1912), extracts from a five-hour set of incidental music for a play by Gabriele d'Annunzio. This work, perhaps because it was partially orchestrated by Debussy's friend André Caplet and thus violates the myth of the solitary genius, is not much played, but it has dramatic ideas not found elsewhere in Debussy's output and is as close as he came to an instrumental counterpart to Pélleas et Mélisande. Sample Heras-Casado's masterly way with the opening of La Mer: he gives himself room to develop the movement and to reveal small details while remaining true to the majesty of the subject. This album makes a fine place for the general listener to start with Debussy, containing his two most famous orchestral works plus a hint of what else is out there. The booklet for the CD version, with footnoted (and interestingly footnoted, at that) text by Denis Herlin, is a fine slice of Debussy's world, and the sound from London's Henry Wood Hall, a place the musicians know well, is top-notch. There is plenty of competition out there when it comes to the big Debussy works, but this is an excellent choice.

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