INGELBRECHT CONDUCTS DEBUSSY
DÈsirÈ-Emile Ingelbrecht, born in 1880, lived for 85 years almost entirely in his native France. He was a contemporary of Pierre Monteux (b. 1876), AndrÈ Caplet (b. 1878), Paul Paray (b. 1886), and Charles Munch (b. 1891). Of these French eminences only the short-lived Caplet (he died in 1925), was closer to Debussy, whose torch Ingelbrecht carried, and whose tradition he upheld lifelong. In 1911 he was chorusmaster for the ill-omened stage premiere of a mystery-play with dance, La Martyre de Saint Sebastien, revived in 1912 as a concert piece that Ingelbrecht led with conspicuous distinction. A year later Gabriel Astruc appointed him chef d’orchestre at the ThÈâtre des Champs-ElysÈes, where PellÈas et MÈlisande in this collection was recorded during a performance on March 13, 1962, marking the centenary of Debussy’s birth.
In 1919, following World War I, Ingelbrecht founded Concerts Pleyel, which featured music of the 16th-18th centuries. In 1924 and again in 1929, he took over the direction of the OpÈra-Comique Orchestra, and was a conductor of the Pasdeloup Orchestra from 1928 to 1932. His crowning achievement, however, was to found the French National Radio Orchestra in 1934, with which he made all of the recordings on these six discs in the last years of his life -- not that any of them except La Martyre, unabridged, betray his age, and only then because the playing is scrappy and the sung and spoken components progressively insufferable.
American record catalogs between wars carried almost nothing by him (only Debussy's Nocturnes and Dukas' La PÈri Fanfare with a "Grande Orchestre Philharmonique," which it wasn't, shabbily recorded to boot). Ingelbrecht's concentration on music-making in and around Paris militated against an international reputation, which Monteux established for himself after World War One, followed by Paray and Munch after the Second War ended in 1945. Until these broadcast tapes from "the Montaigne Archives" surfaced - on a label inexplicably named Naïve, which they certainly are notIngelbrecht was a national institution but an international unknown. Even the Francophiliac Virgil Thomson mentioned him only twice in his collected reviews and autobiography (once as a member of "Les Apaches," a turn-of-the-century group that included Ravel and Florent Schmitt, and later as a member of the audience at the Paris premiere of Thomson's saucy, almost-but-not-quite- scandalous Sonata de chiesa in 1926).
Whatever else, and how, Ingelbrecht conducted during his 53-year podium career we can only guess at. What we have here are unaffected, subtle, yet well-muscled performances of three orchestral masterpieces - La mer, Trois Nocturnes and L'aprËs-midi d’un faune - respectively illuminating as played with a "French" sound now almost extinct, and for their explicit musical content rather than generalized "Impressionism" (a label Debussy loathed and decried). The Faune is on the second disc in a box of two CDs with the early La Damoiselle Èlue (simultaneously sensual, mystical and Roman Catholic, in l957 mono) and the Marche Ècossaise, about which nothing - riens! - is said in the program book, except that it lasts 6:31, which makes for a total timing of just 36:31. The coupling of La mer and the Nocturnes is longer, but still only 48:21; had these discs been remastered, and the Marche dropped, the remaining music would have fit on a single CD.
A Japanese soprano in The Blessed Damozel is not going to make anyone forget Victoria de los Angeles in Charles Munch's commercial recording at Boston for RCA, although the speaker, Fredda Betti, is tolerable. This cannot be said of AndrÈ Falcon in the Martyrdom from 1960 - a wannabe Jean-Louis Barrault (who was no Depardieu). His nasal, sing-song narration of Gabriele d'Annunzio's purple-poesia ends up being our martyrdom, without an English translation to help pass the time. The performance is further hobbled by a squally soprano and the lesser of two contralto soloists (God bless longtime stalwart Solange Michel for not joining her sisters on the back-fence). Orchestral portions of this peculiarly French conflation of speaker, singers, chorus and orchestra are exquisite, but the orchestra was simply anarchic, as if there were no Ingelbrecht - or sometimes anyone - on the podium.
The PellÈas of two years later, however, redresses the balance and pardons all sins. It reminds me of Roger DesormiËre's classic commercial recording, with an added authority that comes from Inghelbrecht's decades of performance - more, arguably, than anyone before him or since. I have admired Karajan's svelte but otherwise self-submerging performance on currently missing CDs, and keep Abbado's idiomatic contribution on DGG, although both feature non-French orchestras: the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics, respectively. Boulez always left me cold (he was Golaud, in effect, without getting angry enough to kill his brother); AndrÈ Cluytens, of late increasingly sanctified four decades after his death, never struck me as authoritative in much of anything - a routinier in plainer words. But Ingelbrecht is hypnotizing, and Micheline Grancher is a poignant Melisande from that period of French vocal decline almost solely redeemed by RÈgine Crespin and Rita Gorr.
Otherwise, in addition to trusty Solange Michel as GeneviËve and FranÁoise Ogeas as Yniold, the male contingent is stalwart: familiar but ever-fastidious Jacques Jansen as PellÈas, Michel Roux as Golaud, and AndrÈ VessiËres as Arkel. The linchpin, withal, is the evergreen DÈsirÈ Inghelbrecht, whose orchestra plays for him like a national treasure. But so, course, is PellÈas, even if in the opera house I was never able to stay awake throughout. It really is an opera best seen in the mind as one listens. The one substantial drawback here is the absence of an English translation, which a detailed synopsis of the action helps a little, although verbal nuances need to be gleaned from the music and its performance, unless one has a libretto either from another set or the opera house.
All recordings are in stereo except La Damoiselle Èlue (in eminently satisfactory mono for a concert performance, recorded by a veteran broadcast engineer), although we are not told this in the case of PellÈas et MÈlisande. So what does that leave in a sturdily boxed collection? Four indubitably valuable CDs, arguably priceless in historic context; a fifth disc of mixed value, depending on one's affection for The Damozel; and, from my listening post, a dud containing The Martyrdom. When the mood arises to hear Debussy's hurriedly composed but affecting score (much of it orchestrated by Caplet to meet a premiere deadline), I play Michael Tilson Thomas'currently out-of-print Sony CD, which weeded out a lot of narrative fustian and assigned what remained to the seductively low-keyed Leslie Caron. Or, if I want only the four concert excerpts that Debussy extracted, there is always Monteux of yore (also out-of-print but surely not permanently), with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Phil tolerable runners-up, in-print on Sony.