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Faure songs
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

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Jacques OFFENBACH (1819-1880)
La Belle Hélène: André Dran (Paris), Roger Giraud (Menelaus), Jacques Linoslas (Agamemnon), Lucien Mans (Valchas), Jean Mollien (Achilles), Loly Valdarini (Orestes), Armand Duval (Ajax 1), Jean Hoffman (Ajax 2), Janine Linda [Linda Felder?] (Hélène), Janine Weishardt (Bacchis), Jacqueline Vitry (Leona), Anette Martineau (Parthonis), Paris Philharmonic Chorus and Orchestra/René Leibowitz
Recorded in 1952
Emmanuel CHABRIER (1841-1894)

L’Etoile: Highlights: Fanély Revoil (Lazuli), Lucie Thelin (Princess Laoula), René Bonneval (Tapioca), Jeanne Mattio (Aloès), René Hérent (Ouf 1), André Balbon (Sirocco), Alban Derroja (Hérisson), Paris Opéra Comique Chorus and Orchestra/Roger Désormière
Recorded in 1941
REGIS RRC2062 [2 CDs 74:14, 59:14]

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?

Christopher Howell



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