In his all too infrequent appearances as guest conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra so far, Erich Leinsdorf has presented just the sort of repertoire we would expect from a musician born and trained in Vienna -- Mozart, Wagner, Brahms and most recently Mahler.
In his 1976 autobiography "Cadenza," however, Leinsdorf recalls his early discovery of his affinity for the French repertoire, and in particular for Debussy's "Pelleas et Melisande," which he was assigned to conduct in his first series of guest appearances with the San Francisco Opera in the fall of 1938 (his Met debut was in January of that year). He fell in love with the work and managed to have it assigned to him at the Met the following season. While the New York production was less successful than the one in San Francisco, and Leinsdorf may not have had another opportunity to conduct "Pelleas," his involvement with the work had another consequence not too widely known and not even mentioned in his book.
In 1943 Leinsdorf was appointed to his first orchestral post, succeeding Artur Rodzinski as conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra. His three-year tenure was interrupted by wartime service in the U.S. Army (he had become a citizen in 1942), but when he returned from his military service he made several recordings in Cleveland. Among the titles were some lesser-known works: Rimsky-Korsakov's "Antar," Dvorak's Sixth Symphony (then billed as No. 1), and Leinsdorf's own suite from the Debussy opera. All of these appeared among Columbia's earliest long-play releases, and none survived more than a few years.
The "Pelleas" suite, which might be described as a sort of tone poem drawn from the opera's evocative orchestral interludes, was a stunning and poignant validation of Leinsdorf's feeling for the Debussy idiom, and for this work in particular. When the recording was droped from the catalogue, I wrote to Leinsdorf to ask about the possibility of its being reinstated or, better yet, replaced by a new stereo version. He replied that neither option was open because of certain difficulties with the publisher of the opera. Only a few years later, however, during his first or second season in Boston, Leinsdorf was able to program and broadcast his "Pelleas" suite. Regrettably, RCA did not record it; and if air-checks were made, they never went into any known underground circulation.
Although there are several fine recordings of the opera itself (the latest, under Karajan, is a marvel), it is dismaying to think that this beautiful and sensitively made suite should not be available on records, and it is as gratifying as it is unexpected to discover that the original Cleveland recording is in circulation again. It is not listed in Schwann, because it is part of a batch of reissues made up by Columbia Special Products especially for Surplus Record and Tape Distributors of Passiac, N.J., and made available to only a few retail outlets. I came across it at Discount Records and picked up several copies for special friends. If you can find this item, you are likely to want spare copies, too. The number is P-14141, and the coupling is the same as on the original ML-4090, Debussy's Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp, played by John Wummer, Milton Katims and Laura Newell.
Another genuine collector's item reissued in the same series is William Warfield's coupling of "Ancient Music of the Church" (pieces by Schuetz, Hammerschmidt, Perotin and Monteverdi) with five ballads by Karl Loewe (P-14173). The majestic "Laudate Dominum" of Monteverdi alone is worth any price asked for this disc (average, I think, is only $1.99), but then so is the utterly idiomatic handling of Loewe's humorous ballad "Des Glockentuermers Toechlerlein." All discs in this series are remastered in artificial stereo, but it is discreetly and effectively managed.