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Jacques IBERT (1890-1962)
Film Music
(Suite, 1948); Golgotha (Suite, 1935); Don Quichotte (1933)
Jacques Tchamkerten (ondes martenot) (Golgotha)
Henry Kiichli (bass) (Don Quichotte),
Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra (Bratislava)/Adriano
rec. Concert Hall, Slovak Radio, Bratislava, 5–6 July 1989 (Golgotha), 15 January 1990 (Don Quichotte), 17 – 18 January 1990 (Macbeth)
NAXOS 8.557607 [77:19]


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As a young man Jacques Ibert wanted to be an actor and in his output as a composer there is a large amount of dramatic music: six operas, seven ballets, a dramatic cantata, incidental music for six stage works and four radio scores. Add to this that he wrote music for about thirty films, although not all of them full-length scores.

On this attractive and well-filled disc, originally issued about fifteen years ago on the Marco Polo label, we get music from three of his films, presented in reversed chronology. The Don Quichotte songs are well-known, at least to Francophiles. The other two scores were unknown to me and had obviously never been heard by anyone, apart from filmgoers who heard the original soundtrack, and that is something quite different. Ibert himself obviously saw the potential for performing this music detached from the pictures, for he sent a letter to his publisher listing the cues in the Macbeth score that could be included in a suite, without any changes of the music. Nothing more happened, though, until Adriano decided to record the music; the result is stunning. Being quite familiar with other orchestral music by Ibert, I was quite surprised to find that this score belongs to a different world, allying him “almost with the avant-garde” as Adriano writes in the accompanying notes. The film, directed by Orson Welles, is regarded as a masterpiece and the music obviously fits like a glove. It is highly dramatic, Ibert paints the different moods almost tangibly and he uses a wide palette of instrumental colours with  piano, celesta, vibraphone, harp and a lot of more or less exotic percussion instruments, added to the traditional symphony orchestra. In the scene entitled Macbeth after the murder (track 3) there is a highly original bass-tuba solo. The whole score is filled with inspired ideas. Like all good film- or theatre music it functions excellently on its own. The descriptive titles of the movements help the listener to create his/her own images but it is also possible to disregard its origin and just revel in the sound. The experience is crowned by the marching of Macduff’s armies in the final movement (track 6). It’s a shame that this music has collected dust for nearly a half-century.

That also goes for the Golgotha score, written in 1935 for Julien Duvuvier’s artistic film about Christ’s last days. This is a film with long sequences without dialogue and so was in urgent need of strong dramatic music. Just as in the Macbeth music, Ibert employs a large percussion section and also two ondes martenot; reduced to one on this recording. The ondes martenot was an early electronic instrument, constructed by Maurice Martenot in 1928. When Ibert composed this music the instrument was something of a novelty. It has been used mainly by French composers: Milhaud, Honegger, Jolivet, Messiaen to mention a few. It produces some eerie effects; even imitating the blowing wind. The suite on this disc was actually put together by Ibert himself, but Adriano has edited it with a cautious hand. He has also divided the score into single episodes and given them suitable titles. The long first movement, La fêtes de Pâques (track 7), is an especially impressive piece with its noble string melody and its gradually growing passacaglia-like march theme. The jagged rhythms of Les vendeurs au Temple (track 8) illustrate the turmoil admirably while Le Calvaire (track 9) is dark and doom-laden. Be prepared for the ondes martenot with its other-worldly sound, sending a cold shiver down one’s back.

Don Quichotte, the oldest score here, was created by the legendary G M Pabst for Feodor Chaliapin, who besides being one of the finest singers in recorded history was also a formidable actor. Originally Ravel was asked to compose songs for Chaliapin, but he was unable to meet the deadline and so the task went to Ibert, who created what in my opinion is one of the finest French song cycles, superior to Ravel’s which eventually was finished and published, although for some reason the texts are different from Ibert’s. Chaliapin recorded the songs in 1933 with Ibert conducting. After a slight revision they were published, although without the orchestral introduction to Chanson du duc. That is a pity, because it is a fine piece and can be heard on Chaliapin’s recording. It would have been nice to have it in up-to-date sound.

When the present recording was made in 1990, it was, according to Adriano’s liner notes the first stereo recording of the orchestral version. José Van Dam recorded it a couple of years later for Erato, a disc that also includes the Ravel songs. The soloist on the present disc, American Henry Kiichli, has a true dark bass voice, sounding heavier than either Van Dam or Chaliapin. It is a straightforward interpretation, not very detailed but doing justice to the songs. In the final song, and to my mind the best, Chanson de la mort (track 16) Kiichli fines down his voice to a soft pianissimo; the effect is truly moving. Chaliapin, recorded in his 60th year but with his marvellous voice as flexible as ever, makes the most of every opportunity to underline, to inflect, to colour words and phrases. This is formidable acting in every sense of the word and the final song, Chanson de la mort, becomes almost unbearably touching. Van Dam, in modern sound, is also a wonderful Don, who avoids Chaliapin’s almost physical acting and concentrates on singing the music as flexibly as possible. Van Dam’s Don Quichotte is captured as if heard from a good seat in a concert hall while Chaliapin’s is a filmed close-up. Both require to be heard, but in his own right Henry Kiichli is a lot more than acceptable.

We are also treated to a bonus in the shape of a rediscovered song for Sancho Panza, sung in the film by Dorville. Based on the piano score, found during the preparations for this recording, Adriano made an orchestral accompaniment in line with the forces used in the Quichotte cycle. It is a charming piece, this Chanson de Sancho, in the form of a Pasodoble set to a comic text. In the film it is sung in an inn, where Sancho is enjoying life, away from Señora Panza! Kiichli sings it with obvious relish.

The fifteen-year-old recordings wear their age lightly and the orchestra play well. Adriano’s booklet text, from which I have obtained much of the background information in this review, is full of interesting details and English translations of the song texts are included, although not the French originals. The quality of the music was a real revelation and one of the most pleasant discoveries in later years. This disc can be confidently recommended – not only to film-music buffs.

Göran Forsling

see also Reviews by Michael Cookson and Jonathan Woolf




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