This legendary recording - and for once that’s
not an exaggeration - was made for the French company, La voix de son
maître, and was originally issued on 78s. For this transfer Andrew
Rose has used La voix de son maître LPs (EMI France 2C 153-12513
- 12515) from the collection of John Philips.
The recording has also appeared on CD in EMI’s Great Recordings
of the Century
though I haven’t heard that transfer. With any historic recording
one of the first questions that a collector will ask is: what’s
the sound like? I have to say that the answer in this case is that it’s
astonishingly good. This recording was set down while Paris was under
occupation and one wonders what logistical issues this caused - to say
nothing of the emotional effect of those times on French musicians.
One doesn’t expect the amplitude and detail of a modern digital
recording and at times the orchestra does sound somewhat compressed
in louder passages such as the Interlude between scenes two and three
in Act IV. However, that reservation apart - and it’s a relatively
minor one - it’s amazing how much orchestral detail comes through;
one can relish the tangy French woodwinds and horns, the harp is nicely
caught and the strings, especially the violins, can be heard very well.
The voices are strongly to the foreground; perhaps a little too much,
the purist might say. However, this means that not a syllable of text
is anything other than crystal clear. Overall I take off my hat to the
engineers from La voix de son maître.
In passing it’s perhaps worth saying that this isn’t the
only example that I’ve heard of excellent work by this company’s
engineers from around this period. Two years later, working in Brussels,
they produced a recording of Honegger’s Jeanne d’Arc
, the quality of which was equally remarkable. I
haven’t had the opportunity to hear other transfers of this recording
for comparison but Andrew Rose has done a marvellous
job for Pristine. The transfers are smooth and clear, there’s
no surface noise and I didn’t pick up any examples of distortion.
Anyone buying this Pristine issue is not going to find that their enjoyment
of the performance is marred by sonic issues.
What a performance it is! So much has been written about it over the
years that it seems almost an impertinence to add anything further.
The fact that the cast is Francophone is a huge advantage, especially
in this uniquely “conversational” opera. The timbre of the
voices, the enunciation and inflection of the words is so satisfying
when native French speakers are involved and on occasions when a character
is required to deliver words rapidly this comes so naturally to a Frenchman
or - woman. The singing per se
is also of the highest possible
order. All the singers appear completely at ease with every technical
aspect of their respective roles. For example, in the role of Pelléas
Jacques Jansen (1913-2002), a true baryton-martin
, has an enviably
easy and effortless top register that means he can deliver the highest-lying
passages without any strain; remember that this role has often been
sung by a tenor, which indicates how high the line goes.
However, the vocal success of the performance is not just a question
of technique; all the characters, the principals especially, are right
under the skin of their respective roles. According to a note on the
Pristine website, the three principals had all performed their roles
in the theatre many times under the direction of Désormière.
More than that, Irene Joachim (1913-2001) had actually studied her role
with Mary Garden, the very first Mélisande. She and Jansen had
been coached by Georges Viseur, one of the two répétiteurs
for the opera’s première. So here we have some genuine
and powerful links to the very start of the performance tradition of
Debussy’s masterpiece. No wonder it all sounds so authentic and
Irene Joachim portrays, at different times, the innocence, vulnerability,
frailty and, in Act IV, the girlish abandon of Mélisande in a
way that is totally convincing and very moving. Her intense and eventually
rapturous exchanges with Pelléas in Act IV, scene 4 are quite
superb. Indeed, this scene, with Jansen matching her for ardour and
dramatic involvement is, as it should be, the apex of the score. Jansen
himself is magnificent throughout. Perhaps some may feel his delivery
of the words sounds a touch deliberate and lacking a little bit of natural
flow at times but if that’s so - and I’m not sure it is
- I’ll willingly sacrifice that for the clarity and intelligence
with which he puts across both words and music. The contrast between
his vocal timbre and that of Henri Etcheverry (1900-1960) is ideal;
there’s never any question who is the elder brother. Etcheverry
is a magnificent Golaud, encompassing every aspect of this role with
complete conviction and great understanding. His jealous rage in Act
IV, scene 2 is a tour de force
and all the more effective because
Etcheverry is masterly in the way he builds the emotion, not peaking
too soon and risking tipping over into melodrama: this is a rage, not
a rant. He, Joachim and the sad, dignified Arkel of Paul Cabanel (1891-1958)
make Mélisande’s death scene in Act V very moving.
As for the conducting of Roger Désormière (1898-1963),
it has been much praised over the years and rightly so. The dramatic
pacing seems to be ideal but even more telling is the sense of seamless
flow; one is not conscious of bar lines. This is a conductor who is
completely in sympathy with Debussy’s style and knows how to achieve
the right results. He ensures that the moments of highly charged drama,
such as the final scene in Act IV, make their full impact. However,
Pelléas et Mélisande
is a score that makes its
effect chiefly through subtlety and poetry and Désormière
is brilliantly successful in this respect.
No libretto or translation is provided. Though regrettable in some ways
I suspect that most collectors who acquire this set will probably have
a modern recording on their shelves and so will have access to the text.
However, I do wish that Pristine would be a bit more consistent in their
documentation. Some of their releases that have come my way, including
one or two featuring Guido Cantelli, have had decent notes giving some
background information about the recordings in question and putting
them in some kind of context. This issue is sadly lacking in that respect
and given the historic importance of this recording that’s a regrettable
This is a seminal work in twentieth-century music and, as an opera,
truly unique. Though this was not the first complete recording of the
score it’s rightly regarded as a landmark in the work’s
history and a benchmark recording against which all others are measured.
Pristine have done a great service in making it available in such a