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Debussy’s only completed opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, is widely considered to be one of the 20th century’s greatest. His setting of Maurice Maeterlinck’s love triangle between Mélisande, Golaud, and his younger half-brother Pelléas, creates a distinctive and tense atmosphere – a world of ambiguity, darkness and light, life, death, and love; all underpinned by Debussy’s complex and subtle harmonies, and expressive use of orchestral colour.

Producer: James Mallinson
Engineering, editing, mixing & mastering: Classic Sound Ltd
Recorded: Live in DSD, 9-10 January 2016, Barbican Hall, London

Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony, written in 1957 to mark the 40th anniversary of the October Revolution, had a mixed reception. Soviet officialdom praised it as a fine example of ‘socialist realism’ and awarded the composer a Lenin Prize; dissident Russians found it far too ‘official’; Western critics damned it as glorified film music. In the years since Shostakovich’s death, however, the Eleventh Symphony has come to be considered in a very different light: not as an ‘official’ work written to satisfy the Soviet authorities, but a deeply moving reflection on Russian history.

The Symphony commemorates the events that led up to the first Russian Revolution. While Tsar Nicholas II and his ministers maintained the principle of rigid autocracy, Russian life was increasingly riddled with incompetence, corruption and oppression. On 9 January 1905 a huge demonstration of workers and their families converged on the square in front of the Winter Palace in St Petersburg. They carried a respectfully worded petition, and icons and portraits of the Tsar. Troops opened fire on the defenceless crowd and hundreds were killed.

Debussy was working on his first substantial attempt at an opera, Rodrigue et Chimène, when he lost interest in its conventional plot and grand operatic manner, eventually abandoning it. He had recently (early 1890s) discovered the plays of Belgian writer Maurice Maeterlinck, and it seems that here, finally, he discovered the subject matter for an opera for which he had been searching. He acknowledged (later, after the work’s completion) in 1902: ‘the drama of Pelléas, which, despite its dream-like atmosphere, contains far more humanity than those so-called “real-life documents”, seemed to suit my intentions admirably. In it there is an evocative language whose sensitivity could be extended into music and into the orchestral backcloth.’ Maeterlinck agreed to Debussy making a musical setting of his much-admired play, and the opera was completed, apart from orchestration, in 1895.

Pelléas is one of the most original and influential operas of its period. Its atmosphere is distinctive and indeed unique, a self-enclosed world where the characters often say one thing when they mean quite another. This sense of ambiguity is highlighted by Debussy’s complex and subtle harmony and his delicate use of orchestral colour throughout. Ironically, Maeterlinck’s play has largely disappeared from view – as if Debussy, in providing its precise musical equivalent, had left no need for it to continue to be performed. Sir Simon Rattle leads an all-star cast on this highly anticipated recording of Debussy’s only complete opera, which marks his first release as Music Director of the London Symphony Orchestra. Sir Simon describes Pelléas et Mélisande, which is the opera he has conducted the most, as ‘one of the most addictive pieces that there is’. For the performances, Rattle and director Peter Sellars had the singers wandering throughout the orchestra, and players seated as Debussy had wanted, with the woodwinds spread around the strings. This made for a very intimate recording, whereby the singers, instead of being removed from the orchestra by being placed at the front, were interwoven into the orchestral textures.

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