MAURICE MAETERLINCK's masterpiece, "Pelleas et Melisande," has always seemed to call for music. The play was first produced in Paris on May 17, 1893, and within a dozen years no fewer than four great composers responded to it with masterworks of their own, each in his own way capturing and even expanding upon the exquisite enchantment that is the essence of "Pelleas."
The grandest of these is the opera by Debussy, who started work even before the play was produced and enjoyed the collaboration of Maeterlinck himself. Before the opera was completed, Gabriel Faure composed incidential music for the play's London premiere, in 1898. In 1903, the year after the premiere of Debussy's opera, Arnold Schoenberg, who had also considered writing an operatic "Pelleas," completed instead the vast tone poem that was the first of his works for orchestra (Op. 5, still in the Romantic style of "Transfigured Night"). Two years later Jean Sibelius composed a set if incidental music, more extended than Fauer's. Now these three orchestral scores have been brought together in a two-disc set of performances by the Rotterdam Philharmonic under its American conductor, David Zinman (Philips 6769.045), and it contains a surprise or two.
It cannot be said that Faure wrote his "Pelleas" music out of sheer inspiration -- he simply responded to a commission and did not even do the orchestration himself, leaving that to Charles Koechlin -- but there could hardly have been a happier combination of subject matter and composer. It might be said that, while the other three composers successfully adopted their writing to the spirit and texture of Maeterlinck's play, Faure's own general style throughout his life shows the special affinity which may well have got him the commission in the first place. s
In addition to the four familiar pieces of Faure's "Pelleas" suite, Zinman includes the song "The Three Blind Sisters" (sung by Jill Gomez, soprano) and the Fantaisie. The latter, like the famous Sicilienne in the suite, is one of the already-composed instrumental pieces Faure orchestrated (or had Koechlin orchestrate) for use in the play -- in this case the Op. 79 Fantaisie for flute and piano, which James Galway recorded recently in his own arrangement for flute and orchestra.
Sibelius produced a more extensive and more original score, evoking the flavor of the North along with that of the Pelleas tale, yet without conflict or contradiction. It is superb music, and reminds us that Sibelius' theater music as a whole is a segment of his output that is as rewarding as it is neglected. It is surprising that no record company has yet offered a comprehensive set of all his major theater scores -- this one, the suite from "Belshazzar's Feast," the two suites from "The Tempest," the one from "King Christian II," etc. -- in a single package.
Utterly different and yet similarly attuned to the fairy-tale atmosphere of Maeterlinck's drama is Schoenberg's early tone poem. This is not music as backdrop for the state action, of course, but in place of it, and marvelously effective for all its length. It is a little longer in Zinman's hands than in Karajan's (in his superb Deutsche Grammophon recording) or Barbirolli's (Angel, now deleted) or Robert Craft's (CBS also deleted), not only because of the more deliberate tempos but because Zinman does not manage to sustain the tension or mold the melodic contours quite as persuasively as they did. But his is a good, workmanlike presentation, extremely well-recorded.
Zinman's Faure and Sibelius are more convincing, and if separated from the Schoenberg would have an enthusiastic recommendation. The present set would have had a stronger appeal if Philips had issued it in its lower-priced Festivo series, but it is worth investigating if you happen to like the idea of "Pelleas" times three.