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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
La Damnation de Faust (1854-56)
Marguerite - Mona Laurena (soprano)
Méphisto – Paul Cabanel (baritone)
Georges Jouatte (tenor)
Brander, le Récitant – André Pactat (bass)
Grande Messe des Morts (Requiem) (1837)
Georges Jouatte (tenor)
Choeurs Emile Passani
Grand Orchestre de Radio-Paris/Jean Fournet
Includes interview with Fournet conducted in February 1998
Recorded in Paris 1943-44
MALIBRAN CDRG 107 [3 CDs: 205.24]



Some valuable historic material is returned to the catalogue here in the form of Jean Fournet’s wartime recordings of The Damnation of Faust and the Requiem. The considerable advantage is that the transfers are generally first class and the documentation is more than adequate. In addition we have a recent interview with the hero of this 3 CD collection, Fournet himself, who reminisces about his career (in French obviously) with understated charm.

The undertaking was considerable, given the circumstances of the occupation and the relative scarcity of good quality shellac, much less the will to record. Nevertheless these two big projects went ahead under Fournet (b. 1913) then still only in his early thirties. He had been a flautist in his youth, a student of Gaubert at the Paris Conservatoire, but soon moved to a career as a conductor. He was associated with the Paris Radio Orchestra – the Orchestre de la Radiodiffusion française in other words – as well subsequently as the Opéra-Comique and prestigious guest spots with the Concertgebouw, Rotterdam Philharmonic as well as in Chicago (the Lyric Opera) and in Buenos Aires’ Teatro Colón. He remained one of the most authoritative exponents of the French repertoire of his generation and it’s arguable, despite the existence of his many subsequent recordings (many superb) whether he ever did anything as overwhelmingly important as these first complete performances of two towering Berlioz masterpieces. Certainly David Hall in the Record Book called them the most significant recordings made anywhere during the War. Whatever the truth of that the fact remains that they were impressive documents and we should be grateful to Malibran for returning them in tandem in this way because they act as an apt salute to Fournet’s pioneering zest.

The Requiem receives a recording of some spiritual depth. When one listens to French choral records of this period and earlier they tend to reflect the liabilities of the choirs rather more than do, say, Italian or British choirs. But this isn’t the case at all here because the Passani choir is a notably well-drilled and effective one and the only disappointment is not their contribution but the exigencies of recording in l’Eglise Saint-Eustache. The recording engineers clearly tried to compensate for the big acoustic by trying for optimum clarity in the mike placements and they must have gone in too close to the choir. The result is that whilst there is a wealth of orchestral detail (though not always – see below) the microphone also picks up exposed choral voices, which can be rather disconcerting, especially as the choir doesn’t sound to be that big. The sopranos have a high, pure elegance and the men are attractively lyrical; the blend, apart from the isolated voices, is otherwise good, the discipline fine. The solemn tread of the Requiem and Kyrie is tremendously atmospheric and in the Sanctus tenor Georges Jouatte impresses with his fine ring at the top. He has a relatively light voice, typically French, usefully and musically deployed here. As for the recording of the orchestra, it does tend to flatten some detail, inevitably perhaps, though it does catch the antiphonal brass passages in the Dies Irae very well (later on detail is not always so well etched).

Along with this prestige recording Fournet had also set down the Damnation of Faust the previous year. Jouatte is here again, as elegant and stylish as he was to be in the Requiem, and he’s partnered by the unpredictable and if the notes are anything to go by somewhat caustic Mona Laurena. Méphisto is Paul Cabanel, a singer of flexible lightness of timbre and sure operatic instincts in this of all insinuating characterisations. Laurena has a firm lyric soprano, occasionally a little untidy, but forceful in matters of impersonation and making a rewarding partnership with Jouatte. The choir once again proves itself to be an excellently drilled, small body and the problems of mike placements are not so noticeable here. The orchestra is lithe though occasionally, if one’s super-critical, could do with a degree more incisiveness. It’s a matter of little account however when Fournet marshals things with such idiomatic expertise.

The booklet is full of interesting period photos and some background information (though, medically speaking, the English translation needs a transplant) and the box set stands as a fitting tribute to Fournet’s significant wartime achievement.

Jonathan Woolf


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