Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande Great Recordings of the Century
Remastered, Box Set
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The payoff to Herbert von Karajan's relentless pursuit of ensemble perfection and beauty of sound can be heard in the playing of the Berlin Philharmonic on this recording: by 1978, when it was made, they were indisputably the most polished and flexible orchestra in Europe, and one of the few orchestras anywhere (including France) that was capable of playing French music with real authority. Fittingly, the orchestra is very much at the center of this account of Claude Debussy's uniquely beautiful opera, magnificently projecting the mysterious, darkly translucent world of its fatally entangled characters. The cast, which is led by two Americans--Richard Stilwell as Pelléas and the incomparable Frederica von Stade as Mélisande --and features a Belgian (José van Dam) as Golaud and an Italian (Ruggero Raimondi) as Arkel, is a superb one, not least because those principals who are not French are nonetheless Francophones, and sing with excellent diction and an authentic delivery. Karajan's pacing of the drama, his skill at eliciting just the right intensity from the orchestra, his surpassing gentleness with the singers (balances are superb and every word comes through clearly), and the overall beauty of the orchestral playing make this not only the finest account of Pelléas et Mélisande yet recorded, but one of the most treasurable opera recordings ever, fully worthy of EMI's Great Recordings of the Century designation. --Ted Libbey
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Karajan manages to draw us into this singular world with total involvement. The Berlin Phil. plays with more richness and sonority than any of the French orchestras to be heard in Pelleas--let's be frank, there was never a Parisian orchestra, then or now, that could hold a candle to the Berliners. The principal singers--Stilwell, von Stade, and Van Dam--have enough dramatic weight to stand up to Karajan's all-encompassing orchestral sound, which says a lot. One could argue that Van Dam and von Stade are the greatest modern exponents of Golaud and Melisande--the young von Stade's voice is blessedly free of the fast beat that came to mar it later on. This is not to take away from Stilwell's ardent Pelleas; I particularly like the fact that his baritone inclines toward the tenor range.
In sum, if you are a lover of this enigmatic and elusive opera, Karajan's EMI set, always a good-sounding recording but now even better in its latest remastering, is a must-listen.
If you love classic Italian opera, you MIGHT not like this, though I wouldn't know for sure.
Debussy's opera does not follow the usual "rules" of classic opera -- the melodies are wandering and querrelous, and there aren't any arias, but it is some of the most gorgeous music I've ever heard in my life.
I fell in love with it the first time I ever heard it, and that has never changed.
I would say, if you love abstract, melancholy music that does not follow "rules," but penetrates right into your heart,
this is for you.
Karajan was the first to change this attitude. In the sixties he made vigorous and fast-paced recordings of Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Brahms, etc. (only Wagner remained an exception, at least in terms of tempo) and approached italian, russian, french and other repertoires with the seriousness that was reserved to german masterpieces up to that time. As an example, he was the first to play Italian Opera from Verdi to Puccini from the orchestra and the score, not from the voices.
It's no chance that he applied slow tempi to this non-german repertoire (even his Cav and Pag!), as to underline that he wanted to do it with the seriousness reserved until that moment to Deutsche Requiems, Fifths and Ninths and so on. This is the case of this 'Pélleas', the first recording of this opera to be conducted by a non-french conductor.
From my point of view, this recording is one of the best ever made by Karajan, and a sign of real genious. He makes sound this music different as heard before (darker, calmer, heavier, ominous...), as if some treasure had remained undiscovered for years and years. This happens also in a few more recordings... 'Walküre', 'Tosca', Mahler's Fifth...
The singers are all excellent. There's not much more to say about the great performances of van Dam, von Stade or Stilwell, so I'd like to say that the choice of Christine Barbaux as Yniold is also fantastic. Her scene with van Dam at the end of Act II and with the sepherd in Act IV are terrific.
I strongly recommend this recording to any lover of this opera. Sorry for my horrible English.
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I'm very syrprised EMI would even consider allowing Kraajan to record ANY Debussy, even more so the very difficult score of Pelleas.Read more