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DEBUSSY: Pelléas et Mélisande

spacer Danco, Slobodskaya, Westbury; Maurane, Etcheverry, Vessières, Frank; BBC Chorus and Philharmonia Orchestra, Ingelbrecht. Notes, no text or translation (available online). Testament SBT3 1484 (3)

Vibrant Response

A 1951 BBC aircheck of Pelléas et Mélisande, conducted by Désiré-Émile Ingelbrecht, is free, impassioned and atmospheric.


This 1951 BBC aircheck has two claims on our attention. It is, first of all, an opportunity to hear Pelléas et Mélisande led by Désiré-Émile Ingelbrecht (1880–1965), a Debussy specialist who had worked directly with the composer, and who takes a free, impassioned and atmospheric approach to the opera. Ingelbrecht's cast includes recognized artists who can be heard on other mid-century recordings but never, to my mind, with the dramatic force  and apparent spontaneity  achieved here. The most striking of these singers — and the second crucial element in this enterprise — is French baritone Camille Maurane (1911–2010), who makes an ideal Pelléas  and seems especially adept at realizing the conductor's elastic shaping of the drama.

Rarely is a Pelléas so language-driven. Not only do the native French singers articulate words with the kind of clarity and forward placement that have become a lost art today; their diction also suggests distinctive character traits, and the listener often feels the text propelling and varying the dynamic pacing. Maurane has unusual vitality in early scenes as he describes the morbid features of Allemonde to the heroine, so that even such classic earlier performers as Jacques Jansen or Charles Panzéra seem, in comparison, to be prosaic providers of background exposition; where they give information, Maurane's Pelléas barely contains his emotional response to the place and the moment. Each of his scenes becomes tauter and more emotive up to the explosive final duet.

From the first scene , the diction of baritone Henri-Bertrand Etcheverry (1900–60), as much as his timbre, conveys the nature of Golaud — verbose, managerial, prosaic — in contrast to Mélisande's pained, minimal cries, as if we were hearing a learned doctor examining and questioning a terrified, inarticulate patient. Etcheverry's Golaud had matured since his performance under Roger Desormière in 1941 (the first complete recording), by the time of this recording sounding darker, gruffer and more violent . While Belgian soprano Suzanne Danco (1911–2000) is an affecting Mélisande , she seems more earthbound than the fragile, entrancing Irène Joachim on the Desormière recording. Arkel is the excellent André Vessières . The expert orchestra sounds as French as the singers. A live audience can sometimes be heard. Barring a slight distortion at strong volume, the recorded sound is vivid.

Some element of mystery clings to the recording, nevertheless. How close is Ingelbrecht's conducting to the composer's specific wishes? How close was the conductor to Debussy? Ingelbrecht's name occurs in most Debussy biographies and even in the collected correspondence, but of course — given the age disparity — always near the end of the composer's life. Debussy's letters to Ingelbrecht concern incidentals and logistics, with assurances of devotion despite rare meetings ("We never see each other," Debussy writes) and lots of humor that might well be evasive. Nowhere is there any artistic discussion or even a reference to Pelléas

The liner note quotes Ingelbrecht's published comments on the "right" way to perform Debussy, in which he insists on a subtle, "insinuating" orchestral attack — a penchant not really borne out on this recording, which encompasses a vast dynamic range. One can only conclude that the performance has little to do with theory or literal fidelity. It reflects Ingel­brecht's own honest, vibrant response to the score — and the text — and his conviction, borne out each moment, that this is a drama of character. spacer 


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