A Singer's Notes by Keith Kibler

A Singer’s Notes 42 – Listening to Pelléas: the Classic 1941 Recording under Désormières as reissued by Andante, EMI, and Pristine Classical

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Pelléas et Mélisande, premiere recording, 1941
Pelléas et Mélisande, premiere recording, 1941

Very few recordings really deserve to be called iconic, but the 1941 recording of Claude Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, conducted by Roger Désormière, is one. Native speakers are part of its excellence. There is a kind of lightness in the orchestral textures which is usually thought of as French, but this aspect of the recording is frequently overstated. A direction in the conducting which keeps the pace nearly conversational is fundamental. Newer recordings of Pelléas are almost all slower, even much slower. This, like the first Böhm Frau ohne Schatten is a recording surrounded by war- and both have the atmosphere of artists striving to give their native musical cultures a permanence, when permanence is mortally threatened. It is a beautiful thing that in a culture surrounded and eventually occupied by horror, these artists have given us the version of Pelléas which is the most French. No Golaud since has mastered the combination of clarity and beauty in the delivery of the Gallic language like Henri Etcheverry. For me this is the finest aspect of the recording. Etcheverry produces intensity after intensity without overstating, and this makes the hair-pulling scene almost unlistenable. The Mélisande, Irène Joachim, (yes, she is the grand-daughter of Josef Joachim) studied the role with its creator Mary Garden. She finds a living, breathing middle line between innocence and seduction. Of all Mélisandes on disc, she may be the hardest to locate between these poles. Anyone interested in French singing must listen to this recording.

Our editor has kindly helped me obtain a download from Pristine Classical of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, the 1941 Désormière recording. I have listened to this along with Andante’s remastering of the same sessions (no longer available. The demise of the admirable cd label and Web site, which offered historical recordings along with contemporary live concert broadcasts) is one of the most unfortunate events in the chaotic recent history of classical recording.—Ed.) and also the commercial remastering of the recording on EMI. I must say at the outset that I do not have a high-end way of connecting my computer to larger speakers. So my listening process has first been to obtain an CD version of the Pristine Pelléas and listen to all three versions on my larger sound system. I then had no choice but to try listening to the download on my computer’s hard drive, and playing the cd’s of the other versions with my computer’s cd player. For me, the problem with downloads is that even if I obtain a high-definition file, let’s say 24-bit, 96 khz, (some as high as 192 khz), the sound passes through very limited playback circuitry. Listening through the computer speakers, the Pristine download clearly has finer resolution, greater detail, and what I guess I would call naturalness. The computer’s hard drive is able to download and read the file at a higher level of resolution than can be obtained on most compact discs. Listening through computer speakers, the Pristine download wins hands down. I just hear more in it.

The story was not quite so simple on good playback equipment. Using my better equipment I still enjoyed the Pristine remastering most. It has exceptional presence in the singing, although perhaps the way it is set out against the orchestral background is a little artificial. The Andante set, complete with an elaborate book-length collection of articles, is the noisiest. Now out of print, it can be hard to obtain. Andante has made the choice to use virtually no noise reduction, claiming that doing so discolors and dulls the vocal profile of the singers. To my ears they are absolutely right about this. The singing sounds the most natural on the Andantes, but there is a definite noise component. After one listens for a few minutes, the ear tends to tune it out. The EMI set is a compromise of these two methods. The voices are not set out in front of you so beautifully as they are in the Pristine, but there is less noise than in the Andante. It is a reasonable middle path. So…. if you want to hear the voices on the recording with remarkable presence, buy the Pristine. If you can stand a little bit of noise, to my ears the Andante is the most natural version of the vocal-orchestral palate. The EMI is either both of these things or neither, depending on your point of view. I would call it a reasonable compromise.

The very finest remasterings of old French recordings I have heard have come from Ward Marston (whose restorations are published on his own site, as well as on Pristine Classical and other labels, including, when it was active, Andante—Ed.). This man has a superlative ear and (even in recordings from the 20’s and 30’s) makes listening exciting. I understand a lot of this has to do with finding mint originals, but surely the most important part of the process is the highly vocal hearing of Mr. Marston. His site is well worth a visit, not only for the rarities he has discovered and restored, but for the fascinating biographies and historical notes.


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