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Debussy Pelleas PTC5186782
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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918) 
Pelléas et Mélisande, Suite symphonique (arr. Nott) [47:04]
Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951) 
Pelléas & Mélisande, Op 5 [42:11]
Orchestre de La Suisse Romande/Jonathan Nott
rec. June 2019 (Schoenberg) and November 2020 (Debussy), Victoria Hall, Geneva, Switzerland.
Reviewed in surround sound.
PENTATONE PTC5186782 SACD [47:04 + 42:11]

Debussy never prepared any orchestral suites from his opera of 1902, but others have, of which the most commonly performed was made by Erich Leinsdorf. Jonathan Nott’s symphonic suite, however, is more ambitious than any predecessor. The aim was to produce a work equivalent in scale to Schoenberg’s Symphonic Poem of 1903, and Nott uses more than just the existing orchestral interludes, adapting music from key sung scenes as well. The focus is on the music for the three main characters Pelléas, Mélisande and Golaud and, in Nott’s words, to “let the leitmotifs and the orchestra tell the story”. Of course, it is the text that ‘tells the story’ and Debussy was famously scrupulous in devising sung lines that keep close to speech, avoiding any operatic display or even full melodies, so that the text can be heard clearly throughout. As a result, the full effectiveness of any such suite depends ultimately on the listener’s knowledge of the opera, and through that Maeterlinck’s play, which forms the ‘libretto’. All the music in the score is by Debussy (bar a very few necessary joins) and in the same sequence as in the opera, and the disc’s 15 tracks are given titles in the booklet, so we know where we are in the tale. Minus the voices, this lovely orchestral tapestry can seem rather slow and elusive for a 47-minute piece, but for lovers of the opera this still makes an intriguing listen, especially in Pentatone’s atmospheric surround sound.

Nott has had to use instruments to replace voices at times, and does that with skill and sensitivity. The most obvious such moment is the opening of Act Three, Mélisande’s song from the tower; here there is a full melody, as this is a song that would be sung in the play rather than an ‘aria’. The Dorian mode tune sung by Mélisande is given to a solo cor anglais, and beautifully played. In fact, the playing is very good all through, and Nott conducts well, with drama at the murder of Pelléas, poignancy at the passing of Mélisande, and with obvious affection throughout.

Schoenberg’s early tone poem is modelled on those of Richard Strauss, so follows the action of the play in some detail, with motifs for the main characters and events. Schoenberg himself wrote an analysis of the work, and the booklet helpfully prints descriptive titles for the sections of the work based on that analysis. Those sections are given individual tracks on the disc, so the listener can follow the musico-dramatic ‘plot’ across the 42 minutes of this account. The Orchestre de La Suisse Romande is in very good shape on this evidence and again plays very well for Jonathan Nott, who seems to relish this huge exotic score. The Pentatone sound on the SACDs is first rate too, with a good surround image. If I have a slight preference for another recent (2020) SACD of this work, that on Chandos from the Bergen Philharmonic under Edward Gardner, it is because it has a touch more passionate urgency at times. Its 37 minutes clips five minutes off Nott’s time to the work’s benefit - but this impressive Pentatone account is still very welcome.

Maeterlinck’s atmospheric play obsessed fin-de-siècle European composers, and to Debussy’s opera and Schoenberg’s symphonic poem we can add incidental music by both Fauré and Sibelius. (Predating all of them is an 1897 suite by the Scottish composer William Wallace, which can be found on Hyperion’s Helios label). There would have been room for some of these scores on the present issue perhaps. There is a pair of CDs containing Marius Constant’s 24-minute Debussy suite, plus the Schoenberg, Fauré and Sibelius works from the Czech Philharmonic under Serge Baudo (Supraphon 1991, reissued 2007). Of course, that does not have Nott’s extensive and fascinating symphonic suite, which is unique to this issue, and the main reason to acquire it.

Roy Westbrook

Previous review: Simon Thompson

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