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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Pelléas et Mélisande
Richard Stilwell (Pelléas), Frederica von Stade (Mélisande), José van Damm (Golaud), Ruggiero Raimondi (Arkel), Nadine Denize (Geneviève), Christine Barbaux (Yniold), Pascal Thomas (Berger)
Berlin German Opera Chorus, Berlin
Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
Recorded in the Philharmonie, Berlin, December 1978
EMI CMS 5 67057 2 [3 CDs, 60.53, 34.33, 67.32]

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Although apparently a "difficult", elusive work, Debussyís intentions and his own realisation of them in music are so crystal clear that Pelléas et Mélisande has had a long and distinguished discography from the Désormière of 1941 through Ansermet and Cluytens down to Dutoit and others of recent vintage with scarcely a dud one along the way. By and large the work has remained in the hands of French interpreters or non-French who have made a particular speciality of French music, and recordings have remained in the tradition of that first Désormière performance, most of whose interpreters had roots going back to Debussy himself. Two recordings remain outside tradition and can be compared only to themselves. One, oddly enough, is conducted by a Frenchman, the ultra-modernist Pierre Boulez; the other is the present set under Karajan.

In Karajanís vast but rather selective repertoire a small core of Debussyís works, principally La Mer and Prélude à líaprès-midi díun faune, remained at the heart of his affections and he returned to them again and again. He conducted notable performances of Pelléas at La Scala in 1954 and the Vienna State Opera in 1962, but this was his only recording of it. While it is true that you will not find here the fruity tones of the typical French woodwind, it is also true that Debussyís orchestral writing can only gain from a conductor whose control over the sonorities and the phrasing of his orchestra was on a level of mastery with that which Gieseking and Michelangeli could obtain from their pianos. Instruments waft in and out in a kaleidoscopic display in which perfection of ensemble and perfection of balance are never made an end in themselves, for Karajanís sense of the overall shape of the work, the long line, is unerring. And let it not be thought that he swamps the piece in Wagnerian sonority, for the bass-line is always light, the sound properly luminous and with a real French mobility to the phrasing Ė he never lets things stagnate. While the colours are predominantly sombre, he is acutely sensitive to the occasional shafts of light that enter into Maeterlinckís shadowy world, such as when Arkel hopes that now "un peu de joie et un peu de soleil" will enter the castle; he also obtains playing of searing passion in the interlude following Golaudís fearful outburst "Une grande innocence", and his conducting of the opening of Act V and its closing pages evinces his deep love of the music. Though it is an unusual Pelléas, I did not find that Karajan came between me and the composer at all.

The soft, crooning style of singing insisted upon by Karajan in the more conversational passages (80% of the opera) places a strain on the singers, but they all cope beautifully. It is indeed strange to hear one of the richest-toned Verdian basses of his time singing sotto voce, but Raimondi proves an inspired choice as Arkel, his tone acquiring real beauty in the more melodic phrases and tremendous power on the few occasions when it is needed. Van Damís Arkel is also a remarkable assumption, from the bewildered beginning to his increasingly sinister, brooding presence (mirrored by the harsher timbres Karajan draws from the orchestra). His account of the "Une grande innocence" scene is terrifying and he shows much psychological understanding of Golaudís clumsy, barely comprehending attempts at rapprochement with dying Mélisande.

Richard Stilwell is occasionally husky in his earlier scenes but finds much beauty of tone as his love for Mélisande develops. Von Stade remains elusive, alternating straight, girlish tones with a sometimes heavy vibrato, and finding a degree of focus towards the end. But I think this is part of Karajanís intentions, since Mélisande is herself so elusive, mysterious. Who she is and where she comes from is never really clear. This performance points up strongly the way in which Pelléasís more ardent declaration of love fails to elicit more than an almost disembodied response, a gently whispered "Je tíaime aussi". She replies to Pelléasís longer outbursts with brief phrases and, when he says she is looking somewhere else she replies that she was seeing him somewhere else. Maeterlinckís world is full of shadowy symbols, but I would suggest that in a certain sense she doesnít exist at all, except as a reflection of what three lonely men (and a lonely child) living in a dark isolated castle felt they needed. Von Stadeís selflessness in accepting to sing an entire opera without once putting her voice on display is rewarded by the fact that she becomes the still centre of the opera even as Golaud is its dramatic centre.

When a recording is issued in a series called "Great Recordings of the Century", one is bound to ask, "is it one of the great recordings?" For many of the generation that grew up in a musical world dominated by Herbert von Karajan, the image of the chromium-plated maestro producing ever more glossy re-recordings of the standard repertoire proved eminently resistible. Strangely enough, it was often his one-offs that revealed his greatness. Almost more than any other recording of his that I know, this Pelléas is one that I feel can be produced as evidence that (and the admission almost sticks in my throat) he truly was a very great musician indeed.

There is a full libretto, a synopsis and a useful note by Richard Osborne, all in English, French and German, and the sound quality is everything you could wish for.

Christopher Howell


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