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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1948)
The Edgar Allan Poe Operas
La Chute de la Maison Usher (1910 rev. 1915/16) [51:56]
William Dazeley (baritone) - Roderick Usher
Eugene Villanueva (baritone) - A friend of Roderick
Virgil Hartinger (tenor) - The Doctor
Lin Lin Fan (soprano) - Lady Madeline
Le Diable dans le Beffroi (1903) [36:56]
Eugene Villanueva (baritone) - The Burgomaster
Lin Lin Fan (soprano) - Jeannette
Michael Dries (bass) - the Bell-ringer
Virgil Hartinger (tenor) - Jean
Kammerchor St. Jacobi Göttingen
Göttinger Symphonie Orchester/Christoph-Mathias Mueller
rec. Stathalle Göttingen, Germany, 10-11 December 2013
PAN CLASSICS PC10342 [51:56 + 36:56]

For aficionados of Debussy's music this is a rare and important set. For the first time - as Debussy intended or at least promised to the New York Metropolitan Opera - his contrasting operas based on short stories by Edgar Allan Poe are presented as a performing pair. This recording is a document of live performances where the works were so coupled and as such consdtitutes a 'world premiere'.

At first glance the world of the horror novella may seem a million miles away from the refined aesthetic of Debussy's music in general and his only completed opera Pelléas et Mélisande in particular. However, La Chute de la Maison Usher in particular is a story that relies almost exclusively on the 'inner world' of its troubled characters. These are not discarded works from Debussy's youth. He was struggling with La Chute de la Maison Usher right up to his untimely death. A major part of the struggle was getting the libretto right - there are three different drafts and it was not until the 3rd was completed that Debussy started work on the score. As a consequence, posterity has inherited an incomplete piano score with scene one more or less complete but scene two substantially missing music of any kind. The British musicologist Robert Orledge has made something of a career out of completing Debussy's sketched scores and his completion - not the first - was premiered a decade ago at the Bregenz Festival. Rather frustratingly, the liner does not elaborate at all on where Debussy ends and Orldege begins in either work. My feeling with this kind of completion is the same as it is with similar works from the Payne/Elgar Symphony No.3 to the Cooke/Mahler Symphony No.10; namely that it has to work for the audience/listener in its own right. The presence of “more” Debussy or Elgar alone does not make it automatically “better”. Scholars with access to original sources can have debates about authenticity - I simply want to enjoy the music as presented.

By that measure, both this performance and the edition used are very successful. The problem is precisely the inner world of the Poe original and the staged framework an opera imposes on a claustrophobic work of fiction. Even in its 3rd draft, for a short opera (just over fifty minutes as presented here) this is a wordy work with the vast bulk of the ‘drama’ given over to Roderick Usher obsessing. Credit here must be given to all the performers and William Dazeley in particular who sings Roderick, for building the tension as well as he does. Online information - at least that which can be accessed without a subscription! - is scant, but it seems that Debussy envisaged the three men's roles as all baritones. The interest in this choice lies in the idea that this overlaying of voices supports the notions that all three characters are different aspects of the same consciousness. Here, ‘The Doctor’ is given to tenor Virgil Hartinger - I have no idea if this was to allow the ear to differentiate the roles by sound alone. Orledge's completion has been staged successfully at major opera houses around the world with one version using cinematic-style projections directed by David Pountney. I can imagine that such a staging would bring a fluidity and flow to the drama that the music alone struggles to achieve. As far as one can tell, Orledge's orchestration is apt and appropriate. His choice of instrumental colouring sits in the lower register of the orchestra - a prominent contra-bassoon and low brass parts are very apparent. The strings shudder and tremble in a suitably atmospheric manner with rare flecks of light and colour for the woodwind. I find it hard to say whether the orchestral sound is ‘authentic’ of the composer late in his life since either by design or because of ill-health his late works are for chamber ensemble or keyboard. Certainly, it works and effectively supports the drama as presented. So does the playing of the Göttinger Symphonie Orchester under conductor Christoph-Mathias Mueller. A photo in the booklet shows this to be an ensemble of 50-60 players and that is pretty much how it sounds: quite small and lean. They make a good if not exceptional sound. The Deutschlandradio recording is also good - enough detail to make the orchestration clear and effective but also placing the voices well inside the ensemble so that neither voices nor instruments overwhelm the other. As mentioned, the singing is uniformly good with all four singers enunciating the French text with great clarity. This is important since although the booklet does include full libretti in French, English and German they are not laid out side by side but in different sections of the booklet, which is a shame.

Given Debussy's well-known distaste for the fads and traditions of French Grand Opera or verismo, this was never going to be a work containing arias which turn up in 'favourite arias' recitals. Debussy, in effect, writes extended recitatives with the accompaniment underlining the inner thoughts of the character, which makes the music strong on atmosphere but short on melody. As far as I can tell, these recordings were made at concert performances over a couple of days. Given the essentially static nature of the work this works quite well - there is a small measure of noise from characters interacting but nothing too distracting and any movements do not impact on the recording quality. Lin Lin Fan, as the doomed Lady Madeline, has little to do in this opera except sing the first lines of the work off-stage at the beginning and return (literally from the grave) bloody and silent at the very end. Ms Fan has a greater contribution to the second work but even here her brief couplet sounds beautifully ethereal and fragile. So overall, this is a very valuable addition to the Debussy canon and it gets a powerful and effective rendition.

The pairing is another Poe/Debussy collaboration, although here the degree of “creative musicology” by Robert Orledge is even greater. Regarding Le Diable dans le beffroi, once again the booklet stays frustratingly silent about this but - thank goodness - there is the transcript of a Gresham lecture given by Orledge viewable online which elaborates the degree of his contribution; Simply put, it’s a lot. For this light comedy, Debussy provided his publisher Durand with 70 bars of sketches and a plot outline. In the lecture this is explained by Orledge as a ploy to encourage Durand to front up with some money for the cash-strapped composer - which he did. That Debussy was serious about the work is not in doubt - he asked Messager for advice regarding the plot in 1902 and was playing excerpts to Henri Busser as late as 1912. But the reality is no libretto and just 70 bars of possible music exist. So it is a case of listener beware and if my caveat of accepting a piece on its own worth and not what it might represent was true of the other opera it is even truer here. I enjoyed this as a piece in the style of Debussy. For me, just a handful of sketches in no real order cannot constitute echt anyone. But clearly Orledge and his librettist Stephen Wyatt - who also contributes to the lecture - have done an excellent, scholarly and enjoyable job of work. The plot is slight - a staid Dutch village is visited by the Devil whose role is more subversive than evil - and he makes the bell strike thirteen which transports the inhabitants to an Italian village with hedonistic and liberating results. There are roles for a young couple of lovers, a retentive mayor and equally up-tight bell-ringer in charge of the all-important town clock. The Devil does not sing but acts, mimes and plays the violin. Orledge has, logically, laid out the voices as tenor and soprano for the lovers, baritone for the mayor and bass for the bell-ringer. Three of the singers return from the previous opera. As mentioned, soprano Lin Lin Fan is given far more opportunity to display her considerable talent ̶ she has an ideal light lyric soprano voice. Eugene Villanueva is the suitably pompous mayor. The only vocal disappointment is Virgil Hartinger’s tenor. In his mid and lower register his voice is good but the tessitura of the role sounds about three notes too high for him. The repeated high passages are distinctly uncomfortable both for singer and listener.

Aside from any financial gains, there is a distinct sense that part of the interest for Debussy in this type of story was once again to cock a snook at the traditions of French Grand Opera. Seeking the opinion of operetta-specialist Messager would seem to confirm this. Running at less than forty minutes this work has the great benefit of concision. Orledge has created a score of abundant light grace and wit, which is a compliment to him as a composer rather than to Debussy. The Prelude is fashioned from a piece Debussy wrote for a “guess-the-composer” competition in 1905 and it is an interesting chip from the master's block. At one point Orledge decides to allow the Devil to play excerpts from 3 famous violin concerti. The fact that he chooses the Beethoven, Brahms and Tchaikovsky shows the Devil to be something of an arch-conservative although I did wonder if I spotted a passing moment from The Miraculous Mandarin to spice things up.

Pan Classics have produced a well-performed and attractively presented set, which Debussy specialists will want to hear. The discs are presented in a tri-fold cardboard sleeve with the booklet tucked into the left hand flap. The absence of any detail about the reconstructions and the dividing out of the libretti are two presentational disappointments. Performances are good and often better than that - the tenor's discomfort my only concern. One other reconstruction of parts of Fall of the House of Usher was available on a French EMI disc from Georges Prętre. This was a recording I owned on cassette but have not revisited for this comparison - 2nd hand copies currently demand foolishly high prices online. In that circumstance, this set has the field pretty much to itself except for a DVD of the longer work, in this reconstruction. To my mind, Fall of the House of Usher does represent a viable, valid and interesting work which can be considered a legitimate part of Debussy’s oeuvre even in a form he never completed. Le Diable dans le beffroi I enjoyed for its own sake, but to my mind there is not enough Debussy present for it to be considered, at any level, one of his works. An interesting pair of conjectural completions - the listener will have to decide if enough of the original composer is present to merit attention.

Nick Barnard



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