DEBUSSY: Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. Three Nocturnes. Pelléas et Mélisande -- Concert Suite (arr. Leinsdorf).
Berlin Philharmonic Orch/Claudio Abbado, cond.
Deutsche Grammophon 471 332 {DDD} TT: 61:54

Debussy's music is, to a large extent, surface. That is, its effect comes from beautiful orchestral colors and harmonies. However, one largely misses the point if one does not go beyond the surface. Great Debussy conductors—Ansermet, Munch, Ormandy, Boulez, Thomas, Stokowski, and (yes) Szell—express a vision that goes beyond the notes. Ansermet gives you the fragility and subtlety of the music—something very close to Debussy's own view. Stokowski gives you the passion—very close to what we know of Debussy's life. Szell mines the nervous energy and the architecture, giving us in orchestral form something close to the disturbance of the late piano music. Boulez presents the architecture and the very French rapture for form. Munch gets the music to dance.

There's nothing wrong with this CD. After all, Abbado and the Berlin are among the best in the world. However, with the exception of "Sirènes," the third of the Trois Nocturnes, nothing comes alive. The players stop at the surface and, I would venture to add, phone it in. The playing comes across as routine. Emmanuel Pahud's flute will never sound bad, but he never seems to fully comprehend the shape of his opening solo in the Préude à l'après-midi d'un faune. The Berlin Philharmonic can get away with this sort of thing, because it has a corps among the most skilled in the world. But compare this with the "but-little-lower" Chicago and Cleveland under Boulez, the San Francisco under Thomas, or even the scrappy Suisse Romande under Ansermet and you see that Berlin is an instrument, a mechanism, rather than an ensemble of orchestral minds.

Almost everything here has been recorded as well or better elsewhere. The joker in the pack is Leinsdorf's collection (with some additional music gathered by Abbado) of music from Pelléas et Mélisande. I agree with Debussy's objections to publishing the instrumental extracts. The music is so closely tied to the stage action (such as it is), it tends to die without the dramatic action to support it. It's no "Ride of the Valkyries" or "Siegfried's Rhine Journey." The actions it captures are far less overt. Since I have the opera, I don't really need the suite or this sleepwalking performance, for that matter.

The recorded sound is acceptable, but not outstanding -- a bit boxy for my tastes.

S.G.S. (October 2003)