Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

WORKS: Pelléas et Mélisande
PERFORMER: Wolfgang Holzmair, Anne Sofie von Otter, Laurent Naouri, Hanna Schaer, Alain Vernhes; Radio France Chorus, French National Orchestra/Bernard Haitink
So much is right about this recording, made live during two concert performances broadcast by Radio France in March 2000, that it seems mean-spirited to point out its limitations, especially since they largely come down to matters of taste.


Though few of the cast are French, the standard of enunciation is high and carries conviction. Anne Sofie von Otter’s Mélisande is rich in understanding but her voice sounds mature and mezzo-ish: a lighter range of colours is preferable. Wolfgang HolzmairPelléas is beautifully managed, his tone finely matched to the weight of the line, but Laurent Naouri’s Golaud fails to rise to the character’s terrifying vehemence. Hanna Schaer’s Geneviève captures the solemn fatalism of the famous letter-reading scene perfectly. Alain Vernhes’s Arkel sounds young, his statements lacking the suggestion of the wisdom (or innocence) of old age. An adult, female Yniold is less than ideal, though admittedly few previous sets opt for a treble.


Haitink’s conducting pays homage to Wagner, and he relishes the textural half-lights and shadows that are so beautifully recreated by the French orchestra. It is he and the players that give the set its greatest distinction. The sound lacks the sharp profile and three-dimensional quality of the more recent studio recordings, but the classic accounts are much older, and since neither of Ansermet’s is available, the choice is inevitably the 1941 set conducted by Désormière. George Hall