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Faure songs
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

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Charles GOUNOD (1818-1893)
Faust (1856-9): Lyric drama in five acts, libretto by Barbier and Carré after Goethe
Faust – Nicolai Gedda (tenor)
Marguerite – Victoria de los Angeles (soprano)
Mephistopheles – Boris Christoff (bass)
Valentin – Ernest Blanc (baritone)
Marthe – Rita Gorr (soprano)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Théàtre National de l’Opéra/André Cluytens
Recorded at the Salle de la Mutualité, Paris, Sept. and Oct. 1958 ADD
Great Recordings of the Century series
EMI CLASSICS 7243 5 67967 2 [3CDs: 50’51+48’39+72’54]

 

For more than fifty years after its premiere in Paris in 1859, Gounod’s Faust was the world’s most popular opera. As Richard Osborne’s chattily informative booklet note tells us, it was "a landmark in French operatic history and a manifestly attractive score, whose long-standing popularity in France is understandable but whose success abroad was sensational". This phenomenal popularity, and wealth of memorable set pieces, led to Enrico Caruso, Geraldine Farrar and Marcel Journet recording extended highlights as early as 1909, and complete versions appeared from the early years of electrical recording (there is a decent sounding Paris Opera set from 1931).

For many, the present set, a stereo remake of an earlier recording by the same team, remains the safest all-round version the gramophone has yet provided. The earlier 1953 set has much going for it, with the three principals in glowing form, but the mono sound is a bit constricted and boxy. Five years on, the stereo sound is remarkably full-bodied and detailed (certainly in this new transfer), and save for a touch of pre-echo in loud passages, is perfectly acceptable, with virtually all traces of tape hiss removed. The only real problem is the many tape edits, which are fairly obvious throughout, though one does get used to them.

The conducting of Cluytens has been rather sniffily described as ‘workmanlike’ and (even by Osborne) as merely ‘dependable’. He knew the score inside out by this time, and where others may hear a tired over-familiarity, I hear a well-shaped, dramatically intense account. This is apparent from the start, where the adagio introduction glowers menacingly, its many Wagnerian overtones played up rather than down. The various waltzes, dance episodes and faster choruses are paced with great exuberance, and he gets excellent results from his orchestra. You will hear many ‘wobbly’ solos (bassoon, a very ‘French’ horn, reedy clarinet etc.) but this adds to the authentically Gallic feel of the whole thing.

The principals were, by this time, famous in their various roles, and this shows in the intensity of the characterisations. Victoria de los Angeles had made her Marguerite debut in 1949 (where the 41-year-old set had infamously collapsed), and her testing opening is superbly judged. The well-known Jewel Song, its coloratura difficulties daunting to this day, is exemplary. She sang this role in many famous productions, notably the Met. in 1953, where Pierre Monteux conducted, Peter Brooks directed (controversially updating it, as he has done since) and Jussi Bjoerling sang Faust. Later, the rising young star, Nicolai Gedda, took over the title role, and the Met audience so took to the pairing of Gedda and de los Angeles, that they dubbed it the Vikki and Nikki show. Gedda was the tenor ‘find’ of the early 1950s, and his beautifully natural head voice, unforced top end and natural feel for the language (he was a gifted linguist) made him perfectly suited to Faust. His Act One duet with Mephistopheles is wonderfully dramatic and effective, and all his set pieces (particularly ‘Salut, demeure chaste et pure’) show no problem with the cruelly high tessitura.

The Devil has all the best tunes (so the saying goes) and that vocal actor supreme, Boris Christoff, has divided opinion as Mephistopheles. "…villainously bad French" wrote one critic, "a Chaliapin impostor" said another. Even a recent opera guide, whilst giving this set top recommendation, finds Christoff "way over-the-top, roaring and bawling his way through the score". Well, to be frank, it is not subtle, but with an instrument like his, who cares? His presence is overwhelming and immediate, as it should be, and the sparring with Gedda is the sort of spine-tingling exchange you simply don’t get anymore.

Of the smaller parts, I was particularly impressed with Ernest Blanc, a singer I found a little bland in some later recordings. He is on top form here, comfortably rising to top G sharp in his ‘Even the bravest heart may swell’ (to give its slightly dated English translation). He performance is as effective as any of the big names.

This is an obvious contender for a Great Recording of the Century, whatever some may think of Cluytens or Christoff. It is typically well packaged, with full text and translation. Despite competition from some modern sets (Carlo Rizzi on Teldec, Richard Bonynge’s all-star Decca production), this is the one to have, especially at medium price.

Tony Haywood

John Phillips has also listened to this recording

 

This is the classic de los Angeles set of Gounod’s masterpiece, conducted by the much underrated André Cluytens, with authentic French forces supported by a few international soloists. It is issued in the ‘Great Recordings of the Century’ series and whilst this set does not really qualify as "Great" it is certainly very good to be able to welcome it back into the catalogue again.

It has been available in various guises over the years, but has not been out of the catalogue for long at a stretch. This is probably the most luxurious package we have seen. Accompanying the set is a very full libretto, in German, French and English, together with a comprehensive scenario of the plot plus a detailed discussion of the performance and a description of where it fits in recording history up until its issue date.

Victoria de los Angeles gives perhaps the most beautiful rendition of the part of Marguerite, and this includes comparisons with modern performances by Gasdia and Studer. She is ably supported by Nicolai Gedda, who was a rising young star when this recording was made. De los Angeles had sung the part first in 1949, many times with Jussi Björling in the theatre as her leading man. The new partnership with Gedda was very well received in the Met and other locations, and this was no doubt the reason for his choice for this recording. This is a re-recording in stereo of an earlier version (with largely the same forces).

Some commentators have criticised Cluyten’s conducting style as somewhat workaday, and I suppose in some ways it is. I find this a definite advantage however, as the natural beauty of Gounod’s writing is allowed to stand on its own merits. It is not distorted by romantic posturing as in some other recorded performances. There is no doubt that Cluytens inspires the forces of the Orchestre et Choeurs du Théâtre National de l’Opéra to a very high level, and at this period of its life, not many could do this.

Boris Christoff gives an absolutely superb rendition of Mephistofeles, one which is an example for others to marvel at. His presence in front of the microphone is striking. One can believe that one is actually listening to the Devil.

Although it is a little churlish to concentrate on some members of the cast rather than others, I must commend the baritone of Ernest Blanc, who makes the part of Valentin his own. It is strange that in the 1860s, Valentin was considered by opera buffs to be a much more important role than it is today, with his death scene being one of the highlights of the score. Here, this scene is done with consummate artistry.

The EMI (France) recording is beginning to show its age, but is quite acceptable and was produced by that doyen of French producers, René Challan. At mid-price, this is a notable re-issue, and vocally as good as you can get.

John Phillips

see Great Recordings of the Century

 




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