“The task of the conductor,” D. E. Inghelbrecht writes in his delightful The Conductor’s World, “is comparable to that of the surgeon. The score on the desk is as defenceless as the patient on the operating table. It is as if the same anaesthetic prevented both full score and patient from reacting against lack of skill, mistake, or carelessness of operators. The pages, like the body, are one entity which must first be cut open, taken to pieces, reduced to chaos, before being resuscitated.” Speaking of skill-shortness on the podium, Monsieur Inghelbrecht – a Parisian of Flemish background much praised by Debussy and also the founder of the Orchestre National de la Radiodiffusion Francaise in 1934 – laments vigorously the undue influence on conductors of the “pitiless, mournful despotism of the metronome.” Warming to his only slightly tongue-in-cheek disappointment in the small army of careless colleagues he’s come across in a long career including two terms as music director of the Opéra Comique, he writes of  the devastations in conducting due to “short-sightedness, long-sightedness, double-visions, colour-blindness, astigmatism, semi-paralysis and even to quasi-blindness of the ears.”

A hoot! I could park this book by the side of the road and go on quoting Inghelbrechtian wit until a herd of Charollais cattle come home; however . . . Debussy was right, Inghelbrecht was a wonderful interpreter of his music, as passionate as precise. In Nuages those clouds seem unusually well-fed and move perhaps a tad faster than we’re used to – at a healthy 104 beats to the minute tempo primo — but what Musical Court judge could rule authoritatively in view of Debussy’s modéré, a marking as insubstantial as, well, a nuage.

I’ve not been able to find a copy of Inghelbrecht’s booklet, How One Must Not Interpret Carmen, Faust and Pelléas,” those staples of the Comique and Salle Garnier, now also that bunker the Opera Bastille. But there is a broadcast of Carmen from Marseille (11-9-42) where Inghelbrecht seems to have retired during the War to unload his arsenal of wit into a seaside typewriter while working now and then in the pit of the local opera – meanwhile of course desperate refugees many of them famous crowded this funky meridional metropolis looking for escapes across the sea. This is as characterful and different a Carmen as you are likely to hear from a reputable maestro. At every turn he seems to have asked, What’s really going on here? As surgeon of the opera he finds the music’s aching heart, and while he can’t repair it he brings it alive and then some. The opera’s opening featuring the toreador music is broadly paced and STRUTS like a good toreador should, the machismo giving way to a daintiness picturing in sound the frilliness perhaps of Escamillo’s gorgeous outfit. And then Fate comes on with a tremolo in the strings heated to burning. I’m reminded of leaving the kettle on and going out to lunch . . . Then the tense rise to the final thump of the prelude is almost excruciating.

Next, a broad tempo for the dragoons’ Chacun Passe suggesting the tedium of their sunbaked hours around the cigarette factory – when, that is, the cigarette girls aren’t present. Micaela’s entrance has never sounded more delicate, this is a Quiet Girl to paraphrase a song by Leonard Bernstein. Even the ragamuffins upstaging the grownup soldiers on the plaza move a little slowly under Inghelbrecht’s baton (scalpel?), they like their elders are out in the midday southern sun. But then a great urgency as José asks Micaela to speak of his dear mother back in their village. And so the performance goes, spontaneous to its core, even a little homely. The bonus in Inghelbrecht’s Carmen CD-set is a veritable sleeper, an extraordinary account of Bizet’s Arlesienne Suite No. 2 recorded by Pathé. Credits include a hauntingly vocal saxophone solo in the Intermezzo, a seriously infectious lilt in the Minuetto and, from this very bookish looking conductor, with the cat on his desk, a swiping, earthy Farandole to round things off. In comparison even Paul Paray’s estimable Detroit recording of this music sounds square, without irony.

And a footnote to say that the BBC’s Sir Adrian Boult, author of Thoughts on Conducting, contributed an introduction to his cross-channel colleague’s Conductor’s World, noting that Inghelbrecht was a composer as well as conductor: “no doubt some readers will remember his enchanting settings of French nursery songs for piano duet.” Ah, Inghelbrecht the incorrigible imp!