This album provides a welcome opportunity to
remember a conductor who mainly worked on the fringe of the recording
scene. René Leibowitz (1913-1972) was born in Warsaw but
settled in Paris and became wholly identified with France and
the French, fighting with the Résistance during
the Second World War. He studied composition with Ravel, Schönberg
and Webern, and conducting with Monteux. An ardent believer in
serialism and dodecaphony as the only way forward, he wrote a
number of proselytising books on the subject. He was lukewarm
about Stravinsky – and recorded a lukewarm performance of The
Rite of Spring – and wrote a book (which, alas, I’ve never
seen) called Sibelius, the Worst Composer in the World.
His many composition pupils included Pierre Boulez. The principal
beneficiary of his fanaticism, Schönberg, who took the more
level-headed view that serialism and dodecaphony were the way
forward for him but not necessarily for everyone, found
such excessive zeal not a little embarrassing, and when Leibowitz
told him proudly that all the young French composers today were
using his twelve-tone system, Schönberg growled, "And
I hope they’re putting some music into it!"
At the present time Leibowitz’s own compositions
are totally forgotten; enormously influential in the 1940s and
1950s, he had practically faded from view by the time of his rather
early death. As a recording artist he is chiefly remembered for
an extensive series of discs made for The Readers’ Digest, mostly
in London, some of which have been issued on CD by Chesky. As
befitted the Readers’ Digest’s target readership, a lot were dedicated
to popular fare such as the Boccherini Minuet and his own arrangements
(non-dodecaphonic I hope) of Greensleeves and The
Londonderry Air. But there was also a Beethoven cycle which
has been widely admired and a Schumann Rhenish Symphony
which, in spite of a few idiosyncratic touches, deserves a permanent
place in the Schumann discography. Back in the earliest days of
LP he had recorded a wide range of fairly rare repertoire, included
some pieces by his idol Schönberg. Should we be rediscovering
his work alongside other advocates of the modernist cause such
as Hans Rosbaud or Hermann Scherchen? No doubt our knowledge of
Leibowitz could be augmented from the radio archives if it were
thought worth our while to do so.
If all this makes Leibowitz sound terribly serious,
he was also well-known for his sizzling performances of operetta.
As well as the present La Belle Hélène, originally
issued by Nixa, he recorded Orpheus aux enfers, also for
Nixa, and – it seems, though I have no information about the cast
or the label – La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein.
Not for nothing has Andrew Porter, in Opera, listed La
Belle Hélène among the five all-time great recordings
of French opera; the conducting is racy and pacy, but with humour
and warmth where required. The sound is close and dry but reasonably
clear. The cast may be described as a typical operetta cast. Perhaps
no one has an exceptional voice, and if they were singing Mozart
there would be some technical limitations to note (though the
principal soprano negotiates the few coloratura passages pretty
well). But this is normal in operetta; the main thing is that
everyone knows exactly what he has to do to get the music over,
and that Leibowitz has welded them into a perfect team.
Recently I commented on an Offenbach recital
by Anne Sofie von Otter and made something of a killjoy of myself
(critical praise was elsewhere practically unanimous) by objecting
to her mannered whooping and swooping. Well, listen to this recording
for proof that the traditional French way doesn’t require
the music to be camped up in this fashion. Compare the aria Amours
divins!, which is also on the von Otter disc. For a start,
the conductor Marc Minkowski seems to think he is conducting Gluck;
it’s very beautiful in a statuesque sort of way and your immediate
reaction on turning to Leibowitz may be that he is rather insensitive.
But then you realise that the music just can’t take such a serious
approach without falling flat; Leibowitz is affectionate, but
with a twinkle in his eye. You might also notice that Linda separates
her syllables more, as Maggie Teyte used to (not a bad model in
the French repertoire). Von Otter has a more beautiful voice,
as such, but the way she uses it is quite out of place here.
As James Murray’s notes point out, little is
known about any of these singers. He also observes that there
are "inconsistencies in the spelling of their names"
on the original LPs, suggesting that they were "strangers
to the record label too!" This is something of an understatement.
From other sources I learn that the singer of Hélène
is called Linda Felder on the cover and Janine Linda on the cast
list. There’s more to this than a slap-happy typist! Furthermore,
in Leibowitz’s recording of Orpheus the same singer (well,
I think so) is called Janine Lindenfelder. The Orpheus cast
also has Dran, Mollien, Hoffman and Mans in common with Hélène.
The same five, with the leading lady once again Janine (some say
Janie) Linda (some say Lindo) also appear in Leibowitz’s recording
of Ravel’s L’Heure Espagnole, this time on Vox. Mollien
and Hoffman are also present in Leibowitz’s set of Gluck’s Alceste,
Mans turns up in his recording of Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs
de Perles (with Mattiwilda Dobbs as the heroine) and Mollien
is also to be heard in Leibowitz-led versions of Mussorgsky’s
The Marriage and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart and Salieri.
While Janine Lindenfelder sings under his baton in Satie’s Socrates
(what a range of fascinating repertoire Leibowitz recorded
in the early 1950s!). Since several companies are involved, pseudonyms
seem ruled out – the pseudonym would be different for each company.
And, just to muddy the waters still more, Linda Felder appeared
on a French EMI recording (not with Leibowitz) of extracts from
Maurice Yvain’s Chanson Gitane. One of the other singers
taking part was Liliane Berton, and she certainly existed! My
own guess is that the singer herself tried changing her name to
see if it brought her more success. In view of the fact that this
classic recording is likely to stay with us for a long time, I
feel that an attempt should be made to find out who all these
people were, and in particular Janine/Janie Linda/Lindenfelder/Felder,
while there are still people around who might remember something.
The second disc also contains extracts from Chabrier’s
L’Etoile, all that was recorded of a short-running production
at the Opéra-Comique in 1941. No mystery about the leading
singer this time, for Fanély Revoil (1906-1999) was one
of the stars of French operetta, and Roger Désormière
(1898-1963) was one of the giants among pre-war French conductors.
His recording of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande
is legendary and under his vital direction we get another
lesson in true French style. The recording is reasonable for its
age. There are no librettos but there are summaries of the plots
and good notes.
Incidentally, Leibowitz was not the only "modernist"
conductor to record Offenbach successfully – about a decade later
Igor Markevich made a classic set of La Périchole,
and I should dearly like to hear again the disc of overtures conducted
by Hermann Scherchen. Now, how about a reissue of the Leibowitz
Orpheus aux enfers?