I've been on Pentatone's case lately for their seemingly misguided decision to cut back on multi-channel SACD productions and releasing more on good old-fashioned stereo CD. So when I saw this marvelous program on the new-release lists, being offered on SACD, I ordered it immediately. And it simultaneously celebrates Pentatone and illustrates my complaints about the label's new direction. In one fell swoop, this release positively confirms the sonic superiority of the SACD format - and, most importantly, Pentatone's mastery of it - with stunning recorded sound; while at the same time confounds logic as to any reasons why Pentatone would abandon it.
This review is most certainly an advocacy for SACD. But it is also intended to give praise when praise is due - and Pentatone absolutely deserves it here.
This program combines two works of the same title/theme, written around the same time (1902 & 1905, respectively), by two different composers. It is just too long to fit onto one disc (although at 89 minutes total, Chandos might have managed it). Thus we have two discs of rather short measure at (roughly) full price. But I'm not complaining. Not this time.
The Debussy, on Disc 1, is a world premier recording of conductor Jonathan Nott's arrangement of a symphonic suite from the opera, Pelleas et Melisande. The booklet explains it is different from the more common suite(s) in that Nott remains closer to the context of the score, retaining sections with vocal lines intact, played by various instruments, rather than concentrating on the purely orchestral interludes. Thus we hear more of the actual opera than ever before. And it is, in a word, exquisite. And it is captured in some of the most glorious, realistic and lavish orchestral sound ever recorded. The strings, in particular, are the very definition of sumptuous. And opulent. That this orchestra possesses a string section capable of producing such a ravishing body of sound is extraordinary in and of itself; but that the recording engineers capture it so magnificently is quite another matter altogether.
This is music to sit back and just wallow in the beauty of it. Debussy proves himself an undisputed supreme master of orchestration in this work, aided by Nott's skillful preparation - in both text and execution, and by what I believe to be Pentatone's very best recorded sound.
The Schoenberg, on Disc 2, is not as transcendent. Nor can it be. This is completely different music and is not crafted from the same mold of compositional perfection as that of Debussy. Nor is it scored with the same mastery of colorful orchestration. The orchestra plays it just as rapturously, though; but in the end, despite its high drama and histrionics, it is chillier, more detached, than the Debussy - both as music and as a performance.
But that's actually not a bad thing here. It is less wayward and heavy-going than is usually the case, and just a little less Richard Strauss-infused, thus giving it a more unique voice. Nott really is an excellent conductor (every time I encounter him) and coaxes a sweeping, forward-flowing momentum and sense of direction, along with transparent textures from his orchestra - all of which are entirely beneficial and musically informative. Pentatone's airy, spacious sound compliments it perfectly and I enjoyed the piece as much as ever.
In closing, this is a must-have for all collectors. Not only to hear this orchestra playing Debussy so magnificently (which really is a glory to behold), but to experience stunning recorded sound, which absolutely defines the state-of-the-art. And, frankly, we must support Pentatone for producing it, sending the message that we will buy their SACDs when they're as good as this one.