Jonathan Nott’s Pelléas Project

DEBUSSY: Pélleas et Mélisande Suite (arr. Nott). SCHOENBERG: Pelleas und Melisande / Orchestre de la Suisse Romande; Jonathan Nott, cond / Pentatone Classics PTC 5186782

Believe it or not, this is a project that I’ve occasionally fantasized about, to have an A/B comparison between the different musician versions of Maeterlinck’s finest play, Pelléas et Mélisande. All that’s missing from this release is Gabriel Faure’s tone poem based on the same work.

In order to make the comparison a fair one, conductor Jonathan Nott has pared down Debussy’s two-hour work to a 47-minute suite which is vastly different from the ones that Erich Leinsdorf, Claudio Abbado and Marius Constant created. Those suites were much shorter and were drawn primarily from the preludes; this one has a symphonic structure and is “drawn from the sung scenes (rather than the orchestral interludes), this has involved finding appropriate orchestral colours for vocal lines: capturing the expressive mood of a passage without words.”

Of course, the success of any attempt to conduct Debussy’s Pelléas depends on how well you can phrase and sustain the amorphous mood of this, his most impressionistic score (not even La Mer was as impressionistic as Pelléas). Nott does a pretty good job of it, and the modern digital sound helps greatly in bringing out orchestral details that often go ignored by the listener. An oboe replaces Mélisande in her most famous solo, “Mes longs cheveaux,” in the castle tower to Pelléas. The one thing Nott lacks, however, is nuance; not even a smidgen of rubato enters his reading of the score. In a stage performance with singers, this probably wouldn’t matter so much, but interestingly, the way Nott leads this score puts more focus on the work’s structure than is usual in a sung performance, which makes it sound more akin to La Mer—note the crescendo passage near the end of track 3.

And, of course, bringing out the work’s structure is the whole point of this exercise, because we can then make a clearer A/B comparison with Schoenberg’s purely orchestral interpretation of Maeterlinck’s play. By making Debussy’s operatic score tighter in both the thematic interrelationships and the overall progression of sound, Nott has brought it more in line with Schoenberg. The only place where he was unable to make a smooth transition was in that between tracks 12 (the end of Act 4, with its very definite concluding chord signifying the death of Pelléas) and 13 (the opening of Act 5), but I don’t think he could have done better without damaging Debussy’s music.

Nott’s performance of the Schoenberg score is taut and well-structured, not quite as passionate as Robert Craft’s old recording of it but very close, and again, with the superb digital sound bringing out more of the details in the orchestration. The Schoenberg of the dodecaphonic school still takes a bad rap from many classical listeners, but works like Pelleas and Verklärte Nacht show you how his musical mind worked, and it was clearly outside the box of most composers of his time. Despite the many “melodies” in Pelleas, Schoenberg uses them as if they were passing motifs used to link sections of the work together; he doesn’t dwell on any of them long enough to encourage anyone in his audience to “hum along with Arnie.” There are also some strange rising chromatic passages, as in track 8, where you suddenly realize that despite its being tonal this music is moving so quickly in so many different melodic and harmonic directions at once that change is the center of its existence.

In short, then, this is a valuable release for Nott’s suite of the Debussy Pelléas in particular. There are several outstanding recordings of the Schoenberg version, and Nott’s is a very good one, but it’s for the Debussy that I primarily recommend this. No other conductor has done as fine a job reducing and synthesizing Debussy’s opera, and your appreciation of this remarkable score will clearly be enhanced by hearing his version of it.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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2 thoughts on “Jonathan Nott’s Pelléas Project

  1. Ben says:

    Hello. Thank you for the review. Not sure whether you’re aware of this but, far as A/B comparisons go, the conductor Serge Baudo recorded compositions of Debussy, Schoenberg, Faure and Sibelius based on Maeterlinck’s play, with the Czech Philharmonic on Supraphon.

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