Debussy
Pelléas et Mélisande – Lyric opera in five acts to a libretto by Maurice Maeterlinck [sung in French]
Pelléas – Camille Maurane
Mélisande – Suzanne Danco
Golaud – Henri-Bertrand Etcheverry
Geneviève – Oda Slobodskaya
Arkel – André Vessières
Yniold – Marjorie Westbury
Le Berger / Médecin – Ernest Frank

BBC Chorus

Philharmonia Orchestra
Désiré-Émile Inghelbrecht

Recorded in Studio No.1 at BBC Maida Vale Studios, London (date unspecified) and broadcast on the BBC Third Programme on 1 June 1951
CD No: TESTAMENT
SBT3 1484 (3 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 48 minutes
Reviewed: April 2013
The catalogue of Testament, an enlightened scourer of the archives, already boasts an electrifying Pelléas et Mélisande in the form of EMI France’s 1956 version conducted by André Cluytens (with Jacques Jansen, Victoria de los Angeles and Gérard Souzay – SBT 3051); but this radio version is even more special. Although taken from a BBC Third Programme broadcast from June 1951 it was laid down at an unspecified earlier date at Maida Vale with an unrivalled team of singers and Walter Legge’s recently founded Philharmonia Orchestra, no less, deputising for a double-booked BBC Symphony Orchestra. The result, a taut, act-by-act single-take account made under optimum conditions, combines the immediacy of a studio recording – which is effectively what it is – with the energy of a live performance. Paul Baily has worked his usual miracle on the mono sound, which is extremely vivid if with an inevitable degree of tape hiss that only intrudes occasionally, and is best left so as to not degrade the music’s colours.
I confess it took me by surprise. While the splendidly named Désiré-Émile Inghelbrecht (1880-1965) is well remembered for his Debussy, most of whose orchestral works he recorded for the French label Ducretet-Thomson in the nineteen-fifties (available on a marvellous trio of single-disc Testament releases, SBT 1212-4), Pelléas et Mélisande was always ‘the one that got away’. Jean-Charles Hoffelé writes in the accompanying booklet of Inghelbrecht’s hurt at what he perceived as EMI’s snub in assigning the first complete recording not to him but to Roger Désormière; Inghelbrecht, after all, had learnt from the composer himself and his authoritative interpretation of the opera, which he conducted throughout his life, was already celebrated. From today’s standpoint, though, there is something thrilling about the heartlessness of history, for not only have its vagaries ensured the existence of EMI’s 1941 classic, but also, decades on, this extraordinary discovery.
Hoffelé quotes extensively from an article Inghelbrecht wrote in 1933 about Debussian performing styles, in which he explains that rather than hitting their note on entry, the orchestral instruments should “steal in”. And steal in they do, throughout this mesmerising performance, in a way that intensifies the otherness of both story and score. The music is impeccably shaped by the conductor and sumptuously played by the Philharmonia in its pomp, and more than I can remember with this opera the listener has the sensation that dramatic cohesion and musical inevitability are as one.
Suzanne Danco, who the following year recorded the role for Decca under Ernest Ansermet (currently available on Eloquence 480 0133) is an intriguingly characterised Mélisande, so abstracted from reality that her vagueness when recalling anything beyond the present moment is almost fated. Is it fanciful to detect a hint of knowing wit in her reading? Perhaps not; but that too is ambiguous, which is as it should be. Danco’s voice, as her admirers know only too well, is a diaphanous marvel, while the clarity of her diction is a joy.
Camille Maurane is a match for her in every way. He too enunciates the text beautifully, his French superbly caught by the BBC engineers: for example his conversational delivery of “Oui, c’est ici, nous y sommes” at the end of Act Two has a relaxed lightness that only a native speaker could hope to achieve. At Pelléas’s bursts of ardour – as when he buries his face in Mélisande’s hair (“ils m’aiment!”) during Act Three – Maurane, a full-blooded baryton-martin, rips through the baritone register into the easiest of heady tenors.
Gérard Souzay paid tribute to Inghelbrecht as the man who taught him the role of Golaud, and the casting of Henri-Bertrand Etcheverry for this broadcast shows that the conductor perceived this character as an earthly counterweight to the airy romanticism of the eponymous pair. Golaud has his own paradoxes, most of them engendered by passions of the most down-to-earth human kind, and Etcheverry inhabits them vividly. His treatment of Yniold (Marjorie Westbury, her interpretation bothers me far less than it does Hoffelé) when the child spies for him on the lovers bristles with unintentional harm. Oda Slobodskaya is a matronly Geneviève and André Vessières a suitably moribund King Arkel; both are first-rate, although a greater contrast of timbre between the veteran bass’s voice and that of Etcheverry might have been welcome.
Testament has issued this release on three discs in a slim-line jewel box at a special price. Unusually for this label the set includes neither a synopsis nor a libretto (although both can be downloaded from its website) – possibly because most people with an interest in this Pelléas will have access to such documentation anyway. Does the company consider it unlikely that Inghelbrecht’s recording would be anyone’s first library choice? Here’s one grateful recipient to prove this wrong.

 

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