What a pleasure to return to this marvelous piece! In order to prepare for the live performance at Bozar with the Brussels Philharmonic led by their chief Michel Tabachnik, I relistened to the version with the LSO under Tilson Thomas. A sophisticated recording, a beautifully matched trio of soloists, a characterfully dramatic narrator and the most finely groomed playing of the LSO: all this betrays the extravagant care lavished on this recording which is poised to stay a reference in the catalogue. If it were only available! At this point it seems there are only two 'full' concert versions listed: a recording with the SWR Orchestra Baden Baden with Cambreling at the helm, and the classic (mono) Inghelbreght (1955) on Testament. The Cambreling has the drawback that the narrated fragments have been translated into German which really detracts from the atmosphere. The same was true, incidentally, about Bernstein's 1962 recording with the NYPO where the narration was in English (adapted by Bernstein himself, by the way). In that sense it is all the more welcome that the February 2012 issue of BBC Classical Magazine offers a free CD with a full concert performance, with Thierry Fischer leading the BBC Welsh forces. More on that anon.
Together with the late sonatas, this has been THE Debussy discovery for me. Wonderfully moving music this is. It shimmers in tremolos and glissandos of velvety iridescence. The coolness of its palette works extraordinarily understated compared to the extatic slant of the narration. Not only in its luminescent textures does it hark back to Wagner's Parsifal. It's a similar cocktail of sin, violence, ruin, resignation, compassion and redemption. To my feeling the Martyre, whilst at first sight a rather sprawling affair, musters a deeper dramatic and emotional architecture that culminates in the Sebastian's death and tranfiguration in the fourth chamber. It's a great work that belongs in the select company of Sibelius' Kullervo (1892), Elgar's Gerontius (1900), Mahler's Eight (1907), Schoenberg's Gurrelieder (1911) and Rachmaninov's Bells (1913).
In addition to MTT's reading, which is a triumph on all accounts, I also listened to a reading of the Martyre's four symphonic fragments. I had heard versions by Salonen and Monteux before and neither really convinced me. But Gunter Wand's take on these pieces is a total success. The disc is part of the de luxe collection of Great Recordings that was recently re-issued by BMG. His reading is taut and dark, stressing clarity of line without downplaying the coloristic genius of Debussy. You wouldn't immediately expect it from a conductor who has based his career on choice selection of German classics. It's a live recording that dates from 1982, when Wand had just taken over the helm of the North German Radio Orchestra. The sonics, transparent and fullbodied, are excellent. Interestingly, the coupling is Pictures at an Exhibition, in Ravel's orchestration. It's not one of my favourite pieces, but I couldn't resist listening to the Catacombs and lo! how well these somber brass perorations connected to the general mood of the Martyre. Another serendipitous flash of connection between these two composers.Anyway I have listened numerous times to these fragments. Couldn't get enough of them.
The live performance then. I am happy to say that it was a phenomenal achievement. Orchestra, chorus and soloists were in great form in their third performance (after Paris, where they offered it with a mise-en-scene, and Ghent). Tabachnik, whom I'd never seen conduct before, hit it just right in his choice of mood and pacing. The attention to detail, coaxing the most delicate sfumato from the orchestra, was exhilarating. The soloists were very well cast. The alto Eve-Maud Hubeaux and soprano Pauline Sabatier, who sang the wonderful Twins duet, had interestingly matching timbres. Karen Vourc'h acquitted herself admirably from the touching, lighter solo passages. Key in this piece is the narrator, who has the keep the flow going and instill a suitable measure of pathos. Mireille Capelle did this very well, although I had some difficulties initially in adjusting to her electronically amplified voice. I never tire from the resplendent spectacle offered by a full strength orchestra from the stalls adjoining the podium. What a grand, monumental spectacle! The swarming string section, the three harps, the six horns, the celesta, the chorus, ... It was altogether a moving experience and I hope to be able to tape the performance from the radio broadcast in the coming weeks or months.
Finally, there is the CD recording that comes with this month's BBC Music Magazine. Thierry Fischer has earned a strong reputation with turn-of-the-century French repertoire and his reading of the Martyre is commendable but not great. It doesn't scale the same heights as the versions led by MTT and Tabachnik for that matter. The pulse is somewhat slack and I am not impressed by Irene Jacob (from La Double Vie de Véronique and Trois Couleurs fame) who is too matter-of-fact as the narrator. The final act - Paradise - is taken at a fairly slow tempo, which makes it more of a mournful extension of the piece's torso than a redemptive finale. I'm more in favour of Tabachnik's jubilation which he showed off with an almost Poulencian swagger. That being said, I think Fischer's reading has a lot going for it too and it may be the only one with a French, female narrator and good sound available for the time being.