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

These discs are an interesting experiment and a worthy attempt to present two important musical responses to Maeterlinck’s epochal play Pelléas et Mélisande, but to my ears they are ultimately unsatisfactory.

It’s hard to think of any single play that has had a more profound impact on musicians than Pelléas et Mélisande. Aside from the composers on this disc, Fauré and Sibelius had their response to it, too. Debussy’s opera is by far the most famous musical treatment of it, but Schoenberg was working on his giant tone poem at the same time, though he claims he didn’t know Debussy was writing his opera while he did so.

Both Schoenberg’s and Debussy’s works represent turning points. For Schoenberg it was to be his last adventure in large scale tonality before embracing atonalism and serialism, while Debussy’s opera represented an attempt to move beyond the all-conquering influence of Wagner by creating a new music drama of suggestion and allusion.

Composers and musicians have fallen deeply under the spell of Debussy’s opera in the century since it first held the stage. So entranced have they been by the music that several conductors – including Monteux, Barbirolli and Abbado – have tried to give Pelléas an independent life in the concert hall, away from the staging and the singing that you’d get in the opera house. Jonathan Nott’s new Suite symphonique fits into this line of heritage, but also tries to do something different. Whereas previous concert realisations of Pelléas have mostly revolved around the orchestral interludes from the operas, Nott has created a single-movement tone poem that tries to chart the work’s drama, including the emotional journeys of Pelléas, Mélisande and Golaud. This means that, unusually for such concert versions, Nott has drawn from the sung sections of the opera as well, and has condensed them into a through-written, quasi-symphonic work that broadly presents the music in the order it appears in the opera and which is pretty much 100% Debussy, barring a little touching-up so as to fill in where the vocal line would have been.

Yet I didn’t believe it. Nott’s suite is at its most convincing when it just plays Debussy’s interludes as he wrote them; which raises the question of why he would include the other sections in the first place? The tension slackens off considerably when the “vocal” moments come. That’s partly because Pelléas isn’t an especially vocal opera, all told. The sung lines are intentionally not song-like, so that the singers blend into the orchestral texture rather than standing out as they do in a conventional opera, and that means that Nott’s work is moody and edgy but, fundamentally, not very satisfying musically. The one exception to that is, not coincidentally, the one purely singable moment in the opera, Mélisande’s song in the tower window before she lets down her hair. That is played straightforwardly, and beautifully, on a solo cor anglais, before the moody scene-painting takes over with Pelléas’ entrance. Otherwise, however, I kept listening out for the punches but not finding them. If you’ll forgive the analogy, listening to it felt like being permanently on the edge of climax but never going over the edge into fulfilment.

What’s here is well played, and Nott’s Geneva orchestra would make a good sound in the opera house. The mood-painting is effective, and the subtly shimmering world of these characters from nowhere is conjured up magically. The castle garden and the forest are evoked very nicely, and the weight of the fourth act, as the tension builds, is palpable. It’s only ever an illusion, though, and ultimately it’s Debussy’s score that does the work. Nott’s efforts are, no doubt, worthy and well-intentioned but, in the final analysis, I found them inconsequential.

We get Schoenberg’s work straight and sure on the second disc, so there’s no comparable problem on that score; but I still didn’t enjoy it as much as I’d hoped to. It sounds clean enough, but I can’t say that the playing of the Suisse Romande really stands up to that of the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester for Boulez, or the Philharmonia for Sinopoli (and, of course, there’s the altogether different sound world of the Berlin Philharmonic for Karajan). The Geneva orchestra holds its own effectively enough, and there are some lovely wind solos in the love scene, but overall the atmosphere feels too low-calorie to be heady.

Nor did I love the recording quality (for either work). It’s straightforward and clean enough, but to my ears a little constricted in range and slightly thin around the bass. I didn’t find Nott’s conducting particularly convincing, either. There’s an overpowering sense of gloom about his reading, which is appropriate enough, but it needs to lift every so often. Even the scherzo scene by the well feels rather heavy, so that Golaud’s wounding straight afterwards feels like a continuation rather than a break.

That said, the drama is pretty palpable. The hair-pulling scene becomes a tortured climax, and there is palpable murk to the scene in the castle vaults. There is a sense of abandon to the climactic love scene in the third part, and the epilogue carries compelling sweep to it.

Overall, though, nothing I heard here would dissuade me from taking Karajan for Schoenberg’s work. Nott’s take on Debussy is interesting, and you have to respect any musician who wants to unpack the opera for a wider audience, but he didn’t leave me wanting more, and it’s to Rattle’s (marvellous) LSO recording that I’ll go next time I want to revel in Debussy’s orchestral colours.

Simon Thompson

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