Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande Suite; Trois nocturnes; Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune

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COMPOSERS: Debussy
LABELS: DG
WORKS: Pelléas et Mélisande Suite; Trois nocturnes; Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
PERFORMER: Emmanuel Pahud (flute); Berlin Radio Chorus, Berlin PO/Claudio Abbado
CATALOGUE NO: 471 332-2
Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande might be among the most wordy of operas, but that hasn’t stopped several attempts at extracting an orchestral suite from the work. At the time of the opera’s premiere, Debussy resisted requests to make a suite of his own, though he did allow a piano pot-pourri to be made. In later years conductors Barbirolli, Monteux, Leinsdorf and the composer Marius Constant all made their own versions, taking advantage of the way the orchestral interludes framing the scenes can often be successfully conjoined. Claudio Abbado has chosen to adapt Leinsdorf’s suite, inserting a few passages from the scenes themselves. It makes a highly effective symphonic poem that encapsulates the psychological tread of the drama, even if it does purposely leave out the love scenes and Pelléas’s murder (incorporated to good effect in Constant’s more through-composed version, the only rival otherwise available on disc, from Supraphon).

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Abbado is, of course, a past master of the opera itself, in the theatre and on disc (his DG recording dates from 1991) and here brings understanding of the music’s place in the drama to bear. The live recording lets in a little too much of the audience and the background atmosphere seems to change with what must be different performances, but does not distract too much from the music-making.

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The studio-made Prélude and Nocturnes (recorded in Berlin’s Jesus-Christus Church) fare better in this respect. Maybe the Berlin strings are a little too gutsy for the composer’s elusive sound-world in L’après-midi, but the performance does boast Emmanuel Pahud as solo flautist and Abbado’s infamous liking for extremes of pianissimo pays off. The Nocturnes are successful, too, though they do not evoke quite the textural magic of Haitink’s Concertgebouw account (Philips). Matthew Rye