Debussy Pelléas et Mélisande
A note informs us that ‘Andante has chosen to follow a strict policy of minimal surface noise elimination’ and that ‘by doing so, we achieve an optimal balance between clarity of recorded sound and faithfulness to the expressive musical detail…’. While understanding the policy, I’m not sure I quite go along with the reasoning: surely ‘clarity’ and ‘faithfulness’ are not the two poles of the argument? As I hear it, clarity and faithfulness are on the same side, opposed to surface noise on the other; although I suppose it depends on what you mean by ‘clarity’.
It’s an important point here, because the level of surface noise, especially in the Desormière recording, is the only factor militating against this collection. Personally, I find it rather high. At the same time, the almost total elimination of noise on Arkadia’s reissue discs does leave the sound somewhat blunted, so you could say that clarity and faithfulness both suffer. The EMI discs lie somewhere between those two. As always with this question, it’s a matter of taste.
In all other respects, the recordings here are to be warmly welcomed. It’s good to have the excerpts conducted by Georges Truc back in the catalogue, even if Alfred Maguenat is a slightly reedy Pelléas. Also, it may not be true to say, as Tim Page does, that Maguenat was ‘approved’ by Debussy, who wrote to him: ‘Your nerves sometimes got the better of your goodwill. But is that not a sign of sensibility that’s to your credit?’ I don’t know that that quite counts as approval… In the Coppola recording, Panzéra and Vanni-Marcoux as the two half-brothers give performances of real class, as does Germaine Cernay in an Odéon recording of 1928 of the letter scene – although this is a good deal slower (3'30" as against 2'50") than her version with Desormière of 13 years later, which sounds more natural and less ‘posed’.
For me, the real surprise, and a wonderful surprise at that, is the excerpt conducted by Albert Wolff, comprising the first two scenes of Act 3 with the intervening interlude (the plural billing ‘excerpts’ is thus not quite accurate). This is something over 17 minutes of sheer pleasure, especially the opening scene, where Wolff’s leisurely tempi allow the love between Pelléas and Mélisande to blossom tenderly. I agree entirely with Page that Cernay’s early death was ‘an artistic calamity’. On this showing, so was the recording industry’s failure to capture Wolff conducting the whole opera.