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Schoenberg & Faure - Pelleas et Melisande

The Europadisc Review

Schoenberg & Faure - Pelleas et Melisande

Paavo Jarvi, Frankfurt Radio Symphony

£11.95

At the turn of the last century, Maurice Maeterlinck’s Symbolist play Pelléas et Mélisande (first performed on 17 May 1883 at the Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens) took the artistic world by storm. In the space of less than 12 years, no fewer than four major composers – Fauré, Debussy, Schoenberg and Sibelius – gave it musical treatment, of which Debussy’s 1902 opera is these days the best-known. Fauré and Sibelius both wrote incidental music for the play (1898 and 1905 respectively), while Schoenberg’s 40-minute post-Straussian symphonic poem provoked something of a scandal at its January 1905 p... read more

At the turn of the last century, Maurice Maeterlinck’s Symbolist play Pelléas et Mélisande (first performed on 17 May 1883 at the Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens) took the artistic world by storm. In the space of less than 12 years, no fewer than four major comp... read more

Schoenberg & Faure - Pelleas et Melisande

Schoenberg & Faure - Pelleas et Melisande

Paavo Jarvi, Frankfurt Radio Symphony

At the turn of the last century, Maurice Maeterlinck’s Symbolist play Pelléas et Mélisande (first performed on 17 May 1883 at the Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens) took the artistic world by storm. In the space of less than 12 years, no fewer than four major composers – Fauré, Debussy, Schoenberg and Sibelius – gave it musical treatment, of which Debussy’s 1902 opera is these days the best-known. Fauré and Sibelius both wrote incidental music for the play (1898 and 1905 respectively), while Schoenberg’s 40-minute post-Straussian symphonic poem provoked something of a scandal at its January 1905 premiere in Vienna’s august Musikverein.

Fauré’s and Schoenberg’s works in particular are worlds apart, the former (in the shape of the four-movement suite made from the incidental music) contained yet exquisitely refined, the latter expansive, oppressive and written for a vast orchestra. Fauré composed his incidental music at short notice for a London production of the play at the invitation of Mrs Patrick Campbell, her first choice (Debussy) having declined as he was already hard at work on his opera on the same subject. Some of Fauré’s music was taken from pre-existing pieces: the famous Sicilienne which was eventually added to the suite was actually from incidental music designed for Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. Fauré’s pupil Charles Koechlin made the initial orchestrations, with Fauré himself expanding the rather small forces of the original when he compiled the suite.

It was Richard Strauss himself who recommended the young Schoenberg to set Maeterlinck’s play to music, but – although unaware that Debussy was already engaged on just such a task – Schoenberg instead opted for a vast purely orchestral symphonic poem. Its dense late-tonal language – cast in an ominous D minor – stretches post-Wagnerian harmonies to their limits, but contains clear leitmotifs depicting the main characters, the heroine Mélisande and the half-brothers Golaud and Pelléas. The work’s dense chromatic harmonies and complex polyphonic strands nonplussed the original Viennese audience and critics, and over the intervening twelve decades it has lost none of its power, even if the musical language – like that of the composer’s Gurrelieder and Verklärte Nacht – is now more ‘palatable’.

To mark these composers’ anniversaries this years (the 150th of Schoenberg’s death and the 100th of Fauré’s death), the Alpha label now releases both these works in recordings made by Paavo Järvi and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra in October 2012 (Schoenberg) and January 2014 (Fauré). Järvi and the Frankfurt orchestra – of which he was chief conductor from 2006 to 2013 – are proven masters in the late-Romantic Austro-German repertoire, as eloquently demonstrated by their award-winning 2020 DG release of Franz Schmidt’s complete symphonies. Here they give a performance of Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande that yields nothing in weight or depth to such famous recordings of yesteryear as Boulez and Karajan.

What’s remarkable, however, is not just the level of instrumental detail revealed in this Hessischer Rundfunk recording, but also the quality of balletic animation and intimacy that Järvi brings to this vast score. He does so without ever compromising the work’s post-Wagnerian sonic richness, and likewise manages to paint each ‘scene’ in vivid colours while never feeling episodic. There are too many individual contributions to highlight, with burnished strings, characterful woodwind, and refulgent brass, but the cor anglais associated with Melisande (heard at the very outset in her chromatically rising three-note motif) deserves special mention.

To move from Schoenberg’s opulent work to Fauré’s altogether more classical score is like taking a palate cleanser: you’d hardly guess that both pieces were based on the same play. The clean string lines that open Fauré’s suite have an Elgarian feel, lightened with Gallic charm, yet there are subtle hints, as the woodwind enter, of troubles to come. The Fileuse second movement, depicting Mélisande at her spinning wheel, features scurrying violin triplets as accompaniment to the main woodwind themes: it is all dispatched with a marvellously idiomatic delicacy and refinement that’s a credit to Järvi and his players. The same is true of the achingly wistful account of the Sicilienne, combining wonderful lightness of tone with the perfect degree of forward momentum. It’s a timely reminder of the Frankfurt RSO’s strengths in the French repertoire over the years.

The suite’s concluding movement depicts the Death of Mélisande, and its sombre, funereal tread perfectly suggests the archaic world of Maeterlinck’s play. Once again, Järvi is careful to maintain an onward momentum even in this slow ceremonial, and it forms a touching conclusion to a disc that does full justice to these two very different treatments of a key work in modern theatre. And it’s as fine a way as any to celebrate two of this year’s anniversary composers at once!

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