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Opera & Vocal CD review - 21 December 1999

By Joel Kasow

A French Collection

Ravel: L'heure espagnole - Rhapsodie Espagnole
Kimberly Barber (Concepcion); Georges Gautier (Torquemada); Kurt Ollmann (Ramiro); David Wilson Johnson (Don Inigo); John Mark Ainsley (Gonzalve)
London Symphony Orchestra
André Previn, conductor
DGG 457 590-2
Texts and translations in English, French and German

Ravel: L'enfant et les sortilèges - Ma Mère l'Oye
Pamela Helen Stephen (L'enfant); Anne Marie Owens (Maman/Un pâtre); Juanita Lascarro (La bergère/La chouette); David Wilson Johnson (L'horloge comtoise/LeLauteuil/Le chat); Mark Tucker (Le petit vieillard/La rainette/La théière); Robert Lloyd (Un arbre); Elizabeth Futral (Le feu/Le rossignol/La princesse); Jacqueline Miura (La tasse chinoise/La chatte); Rinat Shaham (La libellule/L'écureuil); Mary Plazas (La chauve-souris/Une pastourelle)
London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
New London Children's Choir
André Previn, conductor
DGG 457 589-2
Notes in English, French and German, but no texts

Thomas: Mignon
Lucille Vignon (Mignon); Annick Massis (Philine); Alain Gabriel (Wilhelm Meister); Franck Cassard (Frédérick); Philippe Ermelier (Laërte); Patrice Berger (Jarno); Jean-Philippe Courtis (Lothario)
Ensemble Orchestral Harmonia Nova
Choeurs du Théâtre Français de la Musique
Stéphane Denève, conductor
Accord 206552 (2 CDs)
Notes and translations in English, French and German; text in French only

Fauré: La Naissance de Vénus-Oeuvres chorales & Mélodies
Solistes de Lyon-Bernard Tétu
Jean-Claude Pennetier, piano
EMI 5 56728 2
Notes in English, French and German; texts in French and English

Hahn: Mélodies retrouvées
Catherine Dune, soprano; Dider Henry, baritone, Stéphane Petitjean, piano
Maguelone MAG 111.108
Notes in English, French and German; texts in French

Jacques Ibert: Mélodies
Catherine Dune, soprano; Franck Ferrari, baritone; Dalton Baldwin, Sylvie Lechevalier, piano; Frédérique Saumon, flute
Maguelone MAG 111.120
Notes in English, French and German; texts in French

Charles Koechlin: Mélodies
Michèle Command, soprano
Christophe Durrant, piano
Maguelone MAG 111.113
Notes in English, French and German; texts in French

Rhené-Bâton: Mélodies
Sonia de Beaufort, mezzo-soprano
Bruno Schweyer, piano
Maguelone MAG 111.121
Notes in English, French and German; texts in French

Ravel: Shéhérézade
Debussy: La damoiselle élue
Britten: Les illuminations
Sylvia McNair, soprano; Susan Graham, mezzo-soprano
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Tanglewood Festival Chorus
Seiji Ozawa, conductor
Philips446 682-2
Texts and translations in English, French and German

Léopold Simoneau: Opern-Arien und Duette
Pierette Alarie, soprano
Radio Symphonie Orchester Berlin
Lee Schaenen, Paul Strauss, conductors
DGG -The Originals 457 752-2

Notes and translations in English, French and German

From the above listing, it would appear that French music of the 19th and 20th centuries is in good shape, but that is unfortunately far from being the case. Let us start with the most "prestigious" labels. Deutsche Grammophon has offerred André Previn the opportunity to record both of Ravel's operas, L'Enfant et les sortilèges for the second time after a previous attempt some 15 years ago for EMI. The result is superb orchestral playing, but the virtual absence of French-speaking singers renders the results academic.

Things are little better with Sylvia McNair's versions of Ravel and Debussy for Philips, an interpretation so literal that little poetry emanates despite the efforts of Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Things improve slightly with EMI's Fauré disc offering choral works and songs, including the first recording ever of the longish Naissance de Vénus and the first recording of a hitherto unknown version of the Cantique de Jean Racine. The former shows the composer at his most academic, while the soloists chosen for the songs and duets are modesty personified. Jean-Claude Pennetier's piano is a redeeming feature along with the chorus led by Bernard Tétu.

The new recording of Ambroise Thomas's Mignon was recorded live in 1996 at Compiègne by the Théâtre Français de la Musique. This is a disc of little interest other than the performance of Annick Massis as Philine. An inadequate heroine and a tenor who is here cast so far above his station that I interpolated the interpretations of Léopold Simoneau for the two arias indicate the invalid artistic direction of Pierre Jourdan. Jean-Philippe Courtis unfortunately sounds realistically old as Lothario, while the edition chosen is so disfigured by a pinking shears that it is hard to judge the composer's work on its own merits. And while Franck Cassard may be amusing onstage in his travesty imitation, there is little reason to let him sing the interpolated air written specifically for a mezzo.

When we come to the Melodiste français series on Maguelone records we enter another sphere. Even if the singing is not always fluent, the ardor brought to what are often first performances on disc offers its own compensations.

Reynaldo Hahn is now sufficiently familiar to the public that he needs no special introduction, but this recording offers hitherto unrecorded songs, including several settings in English. Didier Henry's mellifluous baritone shares the disc with soprano Catherine Dune, who sounds more comfortable in three songs from La Dame aux camélias (an Yvonne Printemps film) than with the words of Robert Louis Stevenson.

Charles Koechlin may have been the éminence grise behind much of French music of the first half of the 20th century, but he has still to establish himself in the ears of the public. These early songs include "Si tu le veux" which merits its fame, but not to the exclusion of the remainder of his output. Michèle Command may no longer have the freshest of voices, but there is no disputing her authority.

Jacques Ibert has languished for many years, known primarily as the composer of Escales or the songs actually sung by Chaliapin in Pabst's film of Don Quichotte, although the catalogues indicate that he is not entirely forgotten. Franck Ferrari and the veteran Dalton Baldwin share the disc with Catherine Dune and Sylvie Lechevalier. Particularly recommended are the two songs for soprano and flute, "Deux stèles orientées", which complement Albert Roussel's songs for the same combination.

Totally and unjustifiably unknown is Rhené-Bâton, whose straightforward settings of some high-flown poetry are poetically rendered by mezzo Sonia de Beaufort and pianist Bruno Schweyer.

Thank you Maguelone for straying from the familiar paths and allowing the listener to hear something new.

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