Debussy must be the ultimate genius of elusiveness, even when he’s at his most descriptive, not so much in terms of musical utterance but of mood and ambience. In no work is this more apparent than in his ‘Poeme-dansé’ Jeux (Games). Rarely heard in the concert hall, it offers a blend of mystery, initially slightly sinister, and evanescent eroticism, despite the admittedly banal story of a boy and two girls chasing a tennis ball, then each other. In this, Debussy’s last completed score, Roth’s forces, especially the fin-de-siècle woodwind, create magnificently diaphanous textures, somehow also managing to convey the athleticism of the participants.

The Prélude à L’Après-midi d’un Faunedebussy has become Roth’s speciality, and you couldn’t ask for a more coolly sensual reading, the flute playing sensuous but cool is simply out of this world. The other major work is Nocturnes, inspired by Whistler’s paintings. Nuages (Clouds) is a wonderful chiaroscuro study, a sort of musical equivalent of Fifty Shades of Grey. Fêtes (Festivals) is more earthly with vivid colour and movement where Roth and his players capture the passing parade and its gradual disappearance. Curiously, his steady tempo here is slower than a mid-50s recording with Otto Klemperer (of all people). Roth has the few singers in Sirènes interspersed among the orchestra (as Debussy requested.) The effect is magical and produces just the chemistry (Debussy’s own word) the composer wanted.

Composer: Debussy
Composition: Trois NocturnesJeuxPrélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
Performer: Les Siècles/François-Xavier Roth
Catalogue Number: Harmonia Mundi HMM905291

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