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By Joel Kasow

PARIS, 21 July 2006

Brigitte Fassbaender: Lieder
Vol. 1 – Brahms, Dvořák, Schumann and Liszt
Vol. 2 – Schubert, Wolf
Vol. 3 – Mendelssohn, Schumann
Vol. 4 – Mahler, Schoenberg, Milhaud
EMI 7243 5 85303 2 2 (Vol. 1), 7243 5 62980 2 6 (Vol. 2), 7243 5 58012 2 7 (Vol. 3); 7243 5 76797 2 6 (Vol. 4) (notes and interview in English, French and German; texts available online)

Unfortunately for those living on the American continent, appearances by Brigitte Fassbaender were few and far between. Her undeniable talents as an operatic singer overshadowed her abilities in the more intimate form of lieder, and it is good to have the above reissues at hand as a reminder of her proteiform qualities. The accompanists range from the pedestrian Erik Werba who was nonetheless highly prized by a number of excellent lieder singers, to Karl Engel, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Irwin Gage and Aribert Reimann. It is the latter who is fascinating with his composer’s eye, bearing in mind that he advised the singer that she should sing Schoenberg’s Hangende Garten as if it were Schumann and Schumann’s Dichterliebe as if it were Puccini. This is of course not quite the case in performance, but these interpretations have us on the edge of our seats; both singer and pianist come close to giving an expressionist rendering of the Schumann cycle, while reminding us that Schönberg’s Viennese ancestry was difficult to efface. But there is constantly something to catch our attention, occasionally reminding us that not every song is totally suited to the mezzo (Schubert’s Seligkeit sounds too labored), but everyone will have his or her own favorites. I particularly recommend Milhaud’s Trois Chansons de la négresse, which is the perfect item to close this set of four well-filled CDs.



Les Rarissimes de Janine Micheau
Janine Micheau, soprano
various orchestras
Darius Milhaud, Eugène Bigot, Arthur Honegger (conductors) Jeannine Collard, contralto
Pierre Mollet, baritone
Jean Hervé, narrator
EMI 0946 351846 2 4 (2 CDs; notes only in French and English)

Janine Micheau was of the generation of French artists who made few appearances outside of her native country but whose recorded legacy, much unavailable, is nonetheless important. EMI’s series Les Rarissimes de … has been enriched by the first appearances on CD of her landmark recordings of Milhaud with the composer conducting, a 1943 recording of Ravel’s Shéhérazade, and Honegger’s Roi David, again the composer conducting. A flexible lyric soprano, she offers a Ravel that must be set on the same pedestal with Suzanne Danco and Régine Crespin. Yes, the recording shows its age with lots of hiss, but that is quickly forgotten. The Honegger is another story, with the soprano’s appearances episodic in this "symphonic psalm in three parts", the stilted narration in high declamatory style that is difficult to accept today. We are even more aware of the aural deficiencies, with distracting echoes. But it is the Milhaud that justifies acquisition of the album, from the perky Chansons de Ronsard—written for Lily Pons but holding no terrors for Micheau—to the Cantate nuptiale to two excerpts from Bolivar in which we see the enormous range of both composer and interpreter.



Arias  From Forgotten Operas: Huguette Tourangeau
Huguette Tourangeau, mezzo-soprano
Orchestre de la Suisse Romande
Richard Bonynge, conductor
Decca 475 6812 (notes in English only)

I remember when this recording was first issued in the early 1970s, prized for its exploration of unusual repertoire while introducing us to a singer who made no bones about exploiting a cavernous lower register in an extraordinarily unmusical fashion—but being championed by the Sutherland-Bonynge forces did her career no harm. And therein lies the legendary attribute, for once heard it is impossible to forget the sounds emitted by the mezzo-soprano that extended the boundaries of vulgarity. But where else can you hear excerpts from Vaccai’s Giulietta e Romeo, Balfe’s Ildegonda del Carcere, Auber’s Cheval de Bronze, Maillart’s Dragons de Villars, not to mention slightly more familiar items from Donizetti’s Assedio di Calais, Bizet’s Djamileh, Massenet’s Hérodiade or Verdi’s Oberto. Nonetheless, this is a CD I would not like to consign to the flames of hell for the repertoire and the sheer chutzpah demonstrated by protector and protégée, making this a stunning CD of party pieces.



Massenet: Werther
Thomas Hampson (Werther); Susan Graham (Charlotte); Sandrine Piau (Sophie); Stéphane Degout (Albert); René Schirrer (Le Bailli); François Piolino (Schmidt); Laurent Alvaro (Johann)
La Maîtrise de Paris
Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse
Michel Plasson, conductor
Virgin 00946 329527 91 (2 DVDs; note in English, French and German; subtitles in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian)

I will never understand the recording industry—why release on 2 DVDs a concert performance of an opera that cries out for the stage? Are the economics of the industry such that it is less expensive to release a double DVD rather than two CDs? Enlightenment, please.

 Massenet rewrote the role of Werther for the baritone Mattia Battistini in 1902, and while no official document has been located with the composer’s authentication, piano-vocal scores with the adaptations do exist. Is it interesting? Not really, as Massenet seems basically to have lowered the vocal line into baritone tessitura without rewriting the opera so that the feverish quality that is so prominent in the tenor version is non-existent. Climaxes are fudged, so that Werther’s arias become boring soliloquies rather than lyric highlights. Thomas Hampson does his best in the title role but he is overpowered by the orchestra when he should dominate, something that never happens in the tenor version. Susan Graham is a wonderful Charlotte, her despair palpable. Sandrine Piau and Stéphane Degout hold up the honors for the French camp, while Michel Plasson and the Orchestre du Capitole are in total symbiosis despite the conductor’s occasional tendency to drag out the tempi. Two slight cuts eliminate some of the Schmidt-Johann folderol, but few would object.

Joel Kasow is the Operanet editor of Culturekiosque.com.

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