Author Topic: Blind Comparison : Debussy, La Mer  (Read 10412 times)

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Offline Jonathas

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Blind Comparison : Debussy, La Mer
« on: May 04, 2012, 01:41:02 AM »

I am pleased to present you with my new project, a blind comparison on an exceptional piece with an exceptional discography, and very appropriate for a this special year, that is Debussy's La Mer.

I took weeks to prepare it. I listened (frequently several times) to no less than 97 versions in order to decide which deserved to be selected in such a comparison. I already announced it on the forum Classik (in French) and Talkclassical, where around 20 participants already registered and I hope many of you will accept to join :)

Method

We'll start with 8 groups of 4 versions each, in an excerpt of the first movement (De l'aube à midi sur la mer). Each group will be judged by at least 4 voters who will individually rank them, and in that way decide which versions will progress to the second round.
There will remain 15 versions for second round, on the first movement and the second movement (Jeux de vagues), one of the most modernist pages by Debussy. They will distributed among 5 groups of 3 versions each, and one version per group will qualify for the finals.
Then the finals will allow every participant to hear excerpts from movements I, II and III (Dialogue du vent et de la mer), and decide which is the absolute best interpretation of La Mer.

Versions

Selected versions are sometimes very well known, sometimes mysterious, sometimes historical, sometimes recent, in short I tried to put all versions that I felt could be missed if they weren't present. I also reserved at least one third of all versions for French orchestras (or from French tradition, as you can find in Switzerland, Belgium, Luxembourg...), and one third for French conductors (or from French tradition, even if from foreign descent). This doesn't mean there is only one third for others, as a French conductor can very well conduct a French orchestra. I found necessary to ensure that the French musical tradition was well represented in the listening, as it frequently implies a different sound, and also a different way to play this music, a kind of intimate relation to Debussy that even the greatest orchestras can rarely achieve.

The listening will start very soon, I shall send groups for the first round no later than May 8th. If you participate, you can very well choose to stop the comparison if you prefer or need to, so there is no obligation of any sort. And, of course, anyone can join at any moment during the "game".

Voters (8 ) : Lisztianwagner ; Opus106 ; fridden ; mc ukrneal ; DavidW ; Brian ; Drasko ; Que ; madaboutmahler [+ 16 on Classik ; 1 on Talkclassical]
« Last Edit: May 21, 2012, 03:36:02 PM by Discobole »

Offline Lisztianwagner

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Re: Blind Comparison : Debussy, La Mer
« Reply #1 on: May 04, 2012, 01:56:28 AM »
Debussy's La mer is absolutely a beautiful, gorgeous piece, I really love it! ;D
You can certainly count me for the blind comparison.
"Music is the electrical soil in which the spirit lives, thinks and invents." - Ludwig van Beethoven

Offline Opus106

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Re: Blind Comparison : Debussy, La Mer
« Reply #2 on: May 04, 2012, 01:57:15 AM »
In. And welcome back to the forum proper. :)
Regards,
Navneeth

Offline Lisztianwagner

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Re: Blind Comparison : Debussy, La Mer
« Reply #3 on: May 04, 2012, 01:59:13 AM »
Debussy's La mer is absolutely a beautiful, gorgeous piece, I really love it! ;D
You can certainly count me for the blind comparison.

Oh yes, what bad manners.....welcome back to the forum! :)
"Music is the electrical soil in which the spirit lives, thinks and invents." - Ludwig van Beethoven

Offline fridden

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Blind Comparison : Debussy, La Mer
« Reply #4 on: May 04, 2012, 04:05:09 AM »
Welcome back, and thank you for arranging this for us!
I want to be part of this.
/fridden

Offline Jonathas

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Re: Blind Comparison : Debussy, La Mer
« Reply #5 on: May 04, 2012, 05:14:45 AM »
Thanks for welcoming me back. For the moment, including the 3 new voters here, there are 23 participants. This promises to be very interesting, for the accuracy of the results AND for the discussions. I am very eager to read your impressions on some of the versions I'll propose.

Offline mc ukrneal

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Re: Blind Comparison : Debussy, La Mer
« Reply #6 on: May 04, 2012, 05:37:50 AM »
+1. Count me in.
Offenbach gets a raw deal in recordings considering his talent! For a discussion of this outstanding composer too little recorded: http://www.good-music-guide.com/community/index.php/topic,5572.

DavidW

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Re: Blind Comparison : Debussy, La Mer
« Reply #7 on: May 04, 2012, 05:56:51 AM »
Count me in.

Offline Brian

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Re: Blind Comparison : Debussy, La Mer
« Reply #8 on: May 04, 2012, 08:27:59 AM »
Count me in, please!

Offline Drasko

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Re: Blind Comparison : Debussy, La Mer
« Reply #9 on: May 04, 2012, 09:09:35 AM »
I'd also like to try this one.
de gustibus, aut bene aut nihil

Offline Que

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Re: Blind Comparison : Debussy, La Mer
« Reply #10 on: May 04, 2012, 09:19:58 AM »
Discobole, glad to find you back on these pages.  :)

And I'm in, and promise not to bail out. 8)

Q
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Offline madaboutmahler

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Re: Blind Comparison : Debussy, La Mer
« Reply #11 on: May 04, 2012, 12:30:13 PM »
Please count me in too!

A favourite of mine, so this should be interesting!
"Music is ... A higher revelation than all Wisdom & Philosophy"
— Ludwig van Beethoven

Offline Jonathas

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Re: Blind Comparison : Debussy, La Mer
« Reply #12 on: May 05, 2012, 02:12:48 PM »
I finally listened to 99 versions exactly to prepare this listening :o

Everything is ready so, you should receive the excerpts shortly.

I'll wait for your votes until Sunday May 20th, in the evening (midnight UTC +2 : Paris, Berlin, Rome, etc.). Do not forget to tell me if you're gonna be late.

Please keep posting your votes and comments with different font size or color, in order to hide informations as a spoiler alert.

Here are the groups you'll listen to (I tried to put you together in groups, not always possible but this will help to discuss what you hear, even more if you listen to other groups after the first one) :

Group A : mc ukrneal ; DavidW (+ 2 on other forums)
Group B : Brian (+ 2)
Group C : (+ 4)
Group D : (+ 1)
Group E : fridden ; Lisztianwagner (+ 2)
Group F : Que ; Opus106 (+ 2)
Group G : Drasko ; madaboutmahler (+ 2)
Group H : (+ 3)
« Last Edit: May 05, 2012, 02:33:25 PM by Discobole »

Offline madaboutmahler

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Re: Blind Comparison : Debussy, La Mer
« Reply #13 on: May 10, 2012, 12:08:02 PM »
Here are my votes for Group G:


G1 – Clear opening. Dynamics well handled, normally well balanced. Maybe some parts lacking character compared to other recordings, and perhaps a little slow in some places. Hmm... sounds as if there is a microphone right next to the piccolo at the end!! Obviously the recording is rather old, although this does not bother me in too many places. Mostly at the ending climax. To me, perhaps some of the playing lacks just a little sensitivity. Many good things in this performance though!

Mark: 6/10

G2 – Clear sound with a very good sense of balance. Very enthusiastic playing from the orchestra, with a good sense of contrast, articulation (maybe a little too precise at points... for my taste at least.), dynamics, tempo and atmosphere. Overall, very impressive orchestral playing, all well controlled in a highly enjoyable and detailed performance.

8/10

G3 – A few slight balance problems here. Or perhaps just a rather strange interpretation. The brass sound far too harsh, and are often too prominent in the texture. And the woodwinds, especially the flute in its solos, sound drowned out too often. Some very expressive, passionate playing, but not well-controlled enough. I wonder which great conductor I have said this about... ;) And the ending is too fast, doesn’t really sound like Debussy should...

4/10

G4 – The balance at the opening was not perfect, but got better as the performance went along. Some very nice moments, a performance often played with much expression. Sensitive, beautiful solos. Sometimes lacking just a little extra dash of excitement perhaps. Very well articulated and detailed. Throughout the second half of the movement in particular, the orchestra speaks as one, very atmospheric and beautiful. So much that I can forgive them for the few small things I disliked about the first half. Hmmm... very interesting take on the ending! Not really what Debussy asked for in the score, but a very interesting approach which I liked very much...so much that I re-listened to this ending quite a few times! Very good!

In order...
4) G3
3) G1

More difficult to choose between G2 and G4, but....
2) G2
1) G4.


I shall have enough time for another group, please could you send another along? Thank you! Very interested to find out which G4 is in particular...
"Music is ... A higher revelation than all Wisdom & Philosophy"
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Offline Brian

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Re: Blind Comparison : Debussy, La Mer
« Reply #14 on: May 10, 2012, 04:25:28 PM »
Group B, whited out following Daniel's example:

B1: A live recording, as is clear right from the very start - there are a lot of squeaking chairs in the opening bars, and a cough. The strings do an admirable job in the first pages, especially the admirable basses and cellos, but I feel like the woodwinds are quite generic, lacking the last bit of idiomatic character. This might be an American orchestra. A few great moments for the cellos (like 4:40) feel rushed, whereas the quiet interlude before the ending is very slow. Aside from some strong waves around 5:20, this is not the most sea-like interpretation. I'll give this a 5/10.

B2: Everyone seems to do the string tremolos well; this time my quibble with the opening is the over-enthusiastic muted trumpet. This is a less clear recording than #3; I miss the harp at certain moments, and sometimes the strings are held back or underbalanced. Around 5:05-5:20 this really tells. Overall I like the faster tempo but the conductor appears to be inflexible about it, and it makes the music feel uneventful. The exciting conclusion isn't earned. 3/10

B3: The opening is superb. I love the subtlety of the woodwinds and French horns throughout this excerpt, in contrast to B1, and the flute solo after 2:20 is an absolute delight. All the players' solo work sounds "true." That said, when the cellos make their entrance with new material at 4:50, I would have appreciated more uplift, more lightness; the episode feels slightly heavy. The ensuing climax is quite consciously downplayed. I think the ending is downplayed somewhat, too, or maybe the recording is dynamically constricted so that the ending does not feel louder than what has come before. The gong is inaudible. I'll give this a 6/10.

B4: Like B2, on the faster side; like B1, not a very French orchestra. But I really like the subtlety and lightness of much of this reading, with gently recessed brass after 1:30 and characterful woodwind playing, although the flute has, for a tiny moment, a glassy quality like you hear in old USSR recordings. This recording feels wonderfully old-fashioned and there's a lot of variety - the conductor isn't afraid to ratchet up the energy at 5:30, rather than keeping to a single tempo like B2. My only quibble about the ending is the absence of gong in the mix; this isn't going to be one of my all-time favorite recordings, but I definitely liked it better than the other three. 8/10

My first choice is B4 without doubt.
My second choice is B3 because, while I don't always agree with the conductor's decisions, this is a distinctive and interesting interpretation.
My third choice is B1 despite some bland woodwind playing.
My last choice is B2, which to my ears feels mechanical and too fast to truly be eventful.


I will have time this weekend for another group!

Offline Drasko

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Re: Blind Comparison : Debussy, La Mer
« Reply #15 on: May 13, 2012, 12:08:32 AM »
Group G

G1 - Generally very well played. Tempos middle of the road without any quirks. Recorded up close and personal, clear, on the dry side. Rather uneventful, non distinctive performance with somewhat underwhelming climax. Would have liked to have been in the audience, but as a recording bit of a bore.

G2 - Completely different affair. Conductor with hands on approach, freer pulse and far more flexible phrasing, lots of shaping and molding, loses momentum here and there but really makes the climax telling. Orchestral playing is excellent but I hate the sound, reverberant and mushy, distant and unfocused. I'm of two mind about the performance. It's definitely interesting but I'm not truly convinced that the piece needs all this pushing and pulling. Would love to hear it complete and live with it for a while.

G3 - I think mono recording (not so easy to tell on computer speakers), dry bit opaque with some balance problems, flute is barely audible at times. Quicker tempo, nicely mantains tension. Orchestra so-so but I liked the brassiness and the touch of vibrato in the brass. Hardly a front runner but not bad.

G4 - Fast and intense, yet transparent and detailed. Wonderful playing from the strings particularly. Winds very good but touch faceless, could be due to lack of some respite, especially in the first half of the movement. Conductor could have given them slightly more breathing space. Overall superb performance. I think I heard some shuffling here and there, could be live.

None of the performances is really bad, wouldn't mind having them all (I was probably bit too harsh on G1). Ranking:

1) G4 & G2
3) G1
4) G3
de gustibus, aut bene aut nihil

Offline Jonathas

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Re: Blind Comparison : Debussy, La Mer
« Reply #16 on: May 13, 2012, 04:33:09 AM »
Thansk for these first votes ! There are already many votes in some of the groups.

Among them B (7 votes) :

... and B3 is clearly ahead, with B4 just behind, fort the moment these two are on their way to second round.

And G (4 votes) :

... G4 is a clear leader, first of every ranking ! The second place is more uncertain, between G1 and G2.

Remember you can listen to as many groups as you wish. And if you're not in, don't hesitate and join ! ;)

Offline fridden

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Re: Blind Comparison : Debussy, La Mer
« Reply #17 on: May 14, 2012, 10:35:48 AM »
Group E

This is really a fantastic piece of music and it has been a pleasure listening to these 4 versions. It has not been easy to rank them, for I enjoyed all of them in some way or other.


E1.
This has really good sound, clean and clear with good balance among the instruments. It is a good performance and I can't really find much to complain about except that the performance perhaps lacks a little in expressiveness for me. I would like more different shades in the music and more contrasts between different parts.

E2.
The sound is on the opposite scale compared to E1, clearly an older recording (mono) but the performance is really great. Comparing timings between different parts of the music and the 4 versions shows that E2 is sometimes the fastest or almost fastest, and in other it is the slowest or almost slowest.
For me this performance really have the intensity and expressiveness I want from this music, and it is really easy to picture various aspects of the sea while listening to this performance.

E3.
Good sound, but not I think a modern recording. Like E2 I find it have a lot of tension and expressiveness but it is always on the quick side in the different part of the music. In the end it doesn't allow the music to breath in the same way as E2.

E4.
This is by far the slowest of the 4, but it isn't all bad. Some part really benefits from the calmer and more grandiose style of this performance, especially at the end. But like E1 it doesn't engage me like E2.

So finally my ranking is :

E2
E3
E1
E4


/fridden

Offline madaboutmahler

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Re: Blind Comparison : Debussy, La Mer
« Reply #18 on: May 15, 2012, 10:15:34 AM »
My votes for Group D:

D1 – Although the sound quality is obviously old, the quality of the playing comes out very well. Excellent tempi, expressive playing, and I like very much the sound of this orchestra. Very nice performance! I don’t have many criticisms about this recording at all really, I enjoyed it very much. Perhaps the ending climax was a little under-powered, but this is probably because of the recording quality. Overall, excellent! 7/10

D2 – This sounds to me as if the conductor is trying his best to be different, and for most of it I don’t think it works well for the music. I don’t like many of the dynamic choices, especially the various sforzandi which are just pointless or too extreme, and the balance and handling of tempi seems just slightly unnatural, and just not Debussy. Some very characteristic, impressive playing, but I don’t like the way the conductor handles it. 4/10

D3 – From the very beginning, some extremely slow tempi! Dynamics at the beginning are less ‘deliberate’ which to me brings slightly less effect. Not sure the balance is always perfect. But some very beautiful playing, expressed very well. Very clear, excellent sound quality, and the sound of the orchestra is very warm and enjoyable. I don’t feel the extremely slow tempo affects my enjoyment of the performance too much, although it certainly works better towards the end than any earlier. Very powerful climax! 6/10

D4 – From the beginning, I feel this performance lacks some enthusiasm and power from the orchestra. I don’t always particularly appreciate the interpretation, for example, some of the articulations, especially at the beginning of the Moderato, where Debussy’s own articulation markings are completely ignored. And also, the drastic tempo changes, often too extreme.  I feel I must say something slightly more positive, and I can certainly say that there is some very good playing technically, very good cellos in their section solo for example, very characteristic there. But overall, the whole performance is lacking momentum and excitement and passion for the piece. To my ears at least! The ending of this moment is obviously rather hard to get right, and I think this performance has come closer to how to get it wrong. The balance is awful, the tempo changes result in a lack of sense in the performance, and it just sounds wrong! Sorry to the performers! ;) 2/10

So, voting order:
4) D4
3) D2
2) D3
1) D1


I should have time for a third group this week as well! :)
"Music is ... A higher revelation than all Wisdom & Philosophy"
— Ludwig van Beethoven

DavidW

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Re: Blind Comparison : Debussy, La Mer
« Reply #19 on: May 16, 2012, 07:57:12 AM »
My votes for Group A:

A4 > A1=A3 > A2
A1 and A3 are both too rushed,
A2 is too fierce, there is no contrast between the lulls and the crests as it were, no poetry
A4 is sublime, the only one in the group I liked.  It doesn't rush it, it doesn't attack it, it simply makes poetry of the music.

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