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Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924)
Prelude to Pénélope [7.59]
Pelléas et Mélisande, Op. 80 (arr. Charles Koechlin) [17.06]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Ariettes oubliées (orch. Brett Dean) [17.47]
La mer [24.40]
Magdalena Kožená (mezzo-soprano)
Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin/Robin Ticciati
rec. Jesus Christus Kirche, Berlin, 2017
Texts and translations included
LINN CKD550 [68.00]

Here we have a British conductor of Italian background, conducting a German orchestra with a Czech soloist in a programme of French music, a splendidly international affair.

Everyone who has heard Fauré’s Pénélope, his second opera, agrees that it is a beautiful work, but stagings are rare – though there was one in February this year in Brussels – and, so far, there has only been one commercial recording, a fine one under Dutoit. The Prelude makes a few more appearances, and Ansermet was particularly fond of it. It is a sombre piece, with some surprisingly Wagnerian sounds in it. Fauré had been a keen Wagnerian, travelling round Europe to hear his works and even going to Bayreuth. The Prelude sounds even more Wagnerian here, played by a German orchestra with its full and rich woodwind and brass, as opposed to the piquant timbres more characteristic of the French tradition. This does not at all detract from its effectiveness.

The suite to Pélleas et Mélisande is one of Fauré’s best-known works. He was commissioned to write incidental music for a production of Maeterlinck’s play and wrote nineteen numbers for it. As he was short of time he enlisted his pupil Charles Koechlin to orchestrate it for a pit band, though under his supervision. From this he extracted the suite of four numbers, and himself reviewed the scoring and expanded it for larger forces, including two harps but no trombones or tuba. It is therefore slightly puzzling that the listing on the sleevenote gives the suite as ‘arr. Charles Koechlin.’ What I hear is the normal four movement suite, very charmingly played. The best known number is the Sicilienne, actually first written for another play, which has one of those tunes which, once you have heard, you feel as if you have known all your life.

A particular attraction of this disc is the first recording of Debussy’s Ariettes oubliées in an orchestration by the Australian composer Brett Dean. Here I must confess that I rarely listen to songs with piano, but I love orchestral song cycles. So I was particularly keen to hear this work. They are settings of the French symbolist poet Verlaine, in his most languorous and decadent mood. Magdalena Kožená with her sultry voice might not be the singer one would expect in this delicate repertoire, but she adopts a confiding and caressing tone, rising where needed to big climaxes. Dean’s orchestration is impressive, staying close to Debussy’s idiom but occasionally going slightly beyond it in a Wagnerian direction. I was reminded of the orchestral versions of Duparc’s songs.

Finally to La Mer, one of the most recorded works in the French repertoire. I was a bit apprehensive that Ticciati would give us a perfectly decent but otherwise unremarkable performance. Not so. This has both refinement, as shown by his meticulous observance of the many small details in the score, and also power. The last movement in particular has a really menacing opening and rises to two huge climaxes. The icing on the cake is that, like most of the conductors I admire in this work, he has restored the brass fanfares in the finale, and they ring out boldly.

As this is the first recording of Dean’s orchestration of the Ariettes oubliées, there are no direct comparisons. For the Fauré works I turned to Michel Plasson’s two disc set of his orchestral works. This is a useful piece of work – and in the Pelléas suite it includes an extra number, the Song of Mélisande, ironically enough orchestrated by Koechlin from his own theatre version after Fauré’s death. It is, however, over thirty years old. La Mer is of course much recorded; my favourite versions include Karajan (1964 DG version), Haitink (1976 Philips version), Colin Davis and Dutoit, but Ticciati can hold his own, even in this distinguished company. An interesting comparison would be with the performance under Roth, using French instruments of the time, but I have not been able to hear that.

The recording, made in the Jesus-Christus-Kirche in Berlin, scene of many a Karajan recording, has fine bloom and resonance. I did wonder whether Magdalena Kožená was recorded at slightly too low a level, but I got used to it. The disc comes in a double-fold sleeve. On the cover there is only a mugshot of the conductor – I would have preferred a proper painting, such as something by Pissaro – but the booklet, in English and French, has an interesting essay exploring where Fauré’s and Debussy’s paths crossed, and has the Verlaine texts with an English translation.

This is a most rewarding issue.

Stephen Barber
Previous review: Michael Cookson (Recording of the Month)



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