Admired for his ability to manipulate tone color, Claude Debussy’s opera Pelleas et Melisande is regarded as a special masterpiece, even if it is a solitary one. Debussy was not known for opera. While Pelleas et Melisande was his only successful opera during his lifetime, it was not the only opera he composed. He made plans for future operatic projects, and he dedicated himself to two projects based on texts by Edgar Allen Poe. As the final years of his life were plagued by poor health, Debussy worked on “La Chute de la maison Usher” (The Fall of the House of Usher) until just before his death. The composer was distraught at the thought of leaving the work unfinished. He also was working on “Le Diable dans le Beffroi” (The Devil in the Belfry), but this work only survived in sketch form. English musicologist Robert Orledge, who is renowned for his expertise in early twentieth century French music, reconstructed both of these works with immense sensitivity to Debussy’s style, filling in all of the missing passages. While Debussy was alive, he promised the New York Metropolitan Opera the premiere of both of the operas, believing he would survive through their completion. This production featuring the Gottinger Symphonie Orchester is the world premiere of the works, in the way that Debussy would have had the Metropolitan Opera perform them. (Arkiv Music)
Hewitt's remake for Hyperion deploys her personal Fazioli concert grand. The instrument's hair-trigger response to note attacks and release yields complex hues that contrast with the rounder, relatively uniform sonorities of the beautiful Steinway featured on Hewitt's 1999 recording (4/00). More importantly, the pianist's enviable polyphonic acumen and dance-orientated conception continue to operate at full capacity, albeit on a deeper and subtler level, as comparative listening reveals.
As they say, the devil is in the details. For example, Hewitt tosses off Var 5's challenging cross-handed leaps more playfully, tempers Var 6's erstwhile fluctuations with greater expressive economy and allows Var 7's dialogue to flourish. Note, too, her nimbler dispatch of the Fughetta and the canon at the fourth (Var 12). By contrast, Var 19's heightened polyphony and slower tempo impart extra gravitas to the music's quasi-minuet character. Hewitt's octave doublings in Var 29 are grander and heftier, with closer attention to the cascading passagework's bass-lines.
Perhaps differences between Hewitt I and Hewitt II emerge most tellingly in the slower variations, including those three in the minor mode. Var 15 remains brisk and steady as before but the canonic voices now take on sharper focus as Hewitt follows through each line to its final destination.
The tender, yielding Var 21 of 1999 contrasts with a new-found urgency. In the celebrated 'Black Pearl', Var 25. Hewitt embarks on an intricate and thoughtful journey; earlier he pursued a less inflected more direct path. However, the way that Hewitt ravishingly fuses elasticity of line and eloquent proportion in the aria-like Var 13 is worth the price of admission, at any cost. It is piano playing for the ages. (Gramophone)