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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Pelléas et Mélisande
(1902) [154:23]
Jacques Jansen (baritone) - Pelléas
Irène Joachim (soprano) - Mélisande
Henri Etcheverry (bass-baritone) - Golaud
Germaine Cernay (mezzo) - Geneviève
Paul Cabanel (bass) - Arkel
Leila Ben Sedira (soprano) -Yniold
Emile Rousseau - Le berger
Armand Narçon - Le médecin
Chorus Yvonne Gouverne
Orchestre Symphonique/Roger Désormière
rec. 12, 17, 19, 20, 25-26 May; 8 October, 16, 18 November 1941, Salle de la Conservatoire, Paris
PRISTINE CLASSICAL PACO 063 [76:08 + 78:19]

This legendary recording - and for once that’s not an exaggeration - was made for the French company, La voix de son maître, and was originally issued on 78s. For this transfer Andrew Rose has used La voix de son maître LPs (EMI France 2C 153-12513 - 12515) from the collection of John Philips.

The recording has also appeared on CD in EMI’s Great Recordings of the Century series (review) though I haven’t heard that transfer. With any historic recording one of the first questions that a collector will ask is: what’s the sound like? I have to say that the answer in this case is that it’s astonishingly good. This recording was set down while Paris was under occupation and one wonders what logistical issues this caused - to say nothing of the emotional effect of those times on French musicians. One doesn’t expect the amplitude and detail of a modern digital recording and at times the orchestra does sound somewhat compressed in louder passages such as the Interlude between scenes two and three in Act IV. However, that reservation apart - and it’s a relatively minor one - it’s amazing how much orchestral detail comes through; one can relish the tangy French woodwinds and horns, the harp is nicely caught and the strings, especially the violins, can be heard very well. The voices are strongly to the foreground; perhaps a little too much, the purist might say. However, this means that not a syllable of text is anything other than crystal clear. Overall I take off my hat to the engineers from La voix de son maître.

In passing it’s perhaps worth saying that this isn’t the only example that I’ve heard of excellent work by this company’s engineers from around this period. Two years later, working in Brussels, they produced a recording of Honegger’s Jeanne d’Arc au Bûcher, the quality of which was equally remarkable. I haven’t had the opportunity to hear other transfers of this recording of Pelléas for comparison but Andrew Rose has done a marvellous job for Pristine. The transfers are smooth and clear, there’s no surface noise and I didn’t pick up any examples of distortion. Anyone buying this Pristine issue is not going to find that their enjoyment of the performance is marred by sonic issues.
What a performance it is! So much has been written about it over the years that it seems almost an impertinence to add anything further. The fact that the cast is Francophone is a huge advantage, especially in this uniquely “conversational” opera. The timbre of the voices, the enunciation and inflection of the words is so satisfying when native French speakers are involved and on occasions when a character is required to deliver words rapidly this comes so naturally to a Frenchman or - woman. The singing per se is also of the highest possible order. All the singers appear completely at ease with every technical aspect of their respective roles. For example, in the role of Pelléas Jacques Jansen (1913-2002), a true baryton-martin, has an enviably easy and effortless top register that means he can deliver the highest-lying passages without any strain; remember that this role has often been sung by a tenor, which indicates how high the line goes.
However, the vocal success of the performance is not just a question of technique; all the characters, the principals especially, are right under the skin of their respective roles. According to a note on the Pristine website, the three principals had all performed their roles in the theatre many times under the direction of Désormière. More than that, Irene Joachim (1913-2001) had actually studied her role with Mary Garden, the very first Mélisande. She and Jansen had been coached by Georges Viseur, one of the two répétiteurs for the opera’s première. So here we have some genuine and powerful links to the very start of the performance tradition of Debussy’s masterpiece. No wonder it all sounds so authentic and natural.
Irene Joachim portrays, at different times, the innocence, vulnerability, frailty and, in Act IV, the girlish abandon of Mélisande in a way that is totally convincing and very moving. Her intense and eventually rapturous exchanges with Pelléas in Act IV, scene 4 are quite superb. Indeed, this scene, with Jansen matching her for ardour and dramatic involvement is, as it should be, the apex of the score. Jansen himself is magnificent throughout. Perhaps some may feel his delivery of the words sounds a touch deliberate and lacking a little bit of natural flow at times but if that’s so - and I’m not sure it is - I’ll willingly sacrifice that for the clarity and intelligence with which he puts across both words and music. The contrast between his vocal timbre and that of Henri Etcheverry (1900-1960) is ideal; there’s never any question who is the elder brother. Etcheverry is a magnificent Golaud, encompassing every aspect of this role with complete conviction and great understanding. His jealous rage in Act IV, scene 2 is a tour de force and all the more effective because Etcheverry is masterly in the way he builds the emotion, not peaking too soon and risking tipping over into melodrama: this is a rage, not a rant. He, Joachim and the sad, dignified Arkel of Paul Cabanel (1891-1958) make Mélisande’s death scene in Act V very moving.
As for the conducting of Roger Désormière (1898-1963), it has been much praised over the years and rightly so. The dramatic pacing seems to be ideal but even more telling is the sense of seamless flow; one is not conscious of bar lines. This is a conductor who is completely in sympathy with Debussy’s style and knows how to achieve the right results. He ensures that the moments of highly charged drama, such as the final scene in Act IV, make their full impact. However, Pelléas et Mélisande is a score that makes its effect chiefly through subtlety and poetry and Désormière is brilliantly successful in this respect.
No libretto or translation is provided. Though regrettable in some ways I suspect that most collectors who acquire this set will probably have a modern recording on their shelves and so will have access to the text. However, I do wish that Pristine would be a bit more consistent in their documentation. Some of their releases that have come my way, including one or two featuring Guido Cantelli, have had decent notes giving some background information about the recordings in question and putting them in some kind of context. This issue is sadly lacking in that respect and given the historic importance of this recording that’s a regrettable omission.
This is a seminal work in twentieth-century music and, as an opera, truly unique. Though this was not the first complete recording of the score it’s rightly regarded as a landmark in the work’s history and a benchmark recording against which all others are measured. Pristine have done a great service in making it available in such a fine transfer.
John Quinn