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Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)
Werther – Opera in Four Acts (1887)
Nicolai Gedda (Werther), Victoria de los Angeles (Charlotte), Mady Mesplé (Sophie), Roger Soyer (Albert), Jean-Christophe Benoit (Le Bailli), Christos Grigoriou (Johan), André Mallabrera (Schmidt), Voix d’enfants de la maïtrise de l’O.R.T.F,
Orchestre de Paris/Georges Prêtre
Recorded 6th, 7th, 9th-14th, 16th November 1968, 10th-12th June 1969 at the Salle Wagram, Paris
EMI CLASSICS Great Recordings Of The Century 5 62627 2 [2 CDs: 68:49 + 53:08]

The booklet contains an essay by Richard Osborne entitled "Prêtre conducts Werther", and there is the rub. Such accompanying essays are obviously not the place for detailed and damning criticism and Osborne, knowing which side his bread is buttered, limits himself to remarking that "Georges Prêtre has been criticised for being too headstrong at times, but he understands most of the secrets of the Massenet cuisine". In all truth EMI would have done better to bill the set in capital letters "PRÊTRE CONDUCTS WERTHER" and put Massenet’s own name in a discreet position lower down the list, for that is what it amounts to.

Georges Prêtre (b.1924) has always been something of a dark horse among French conductors, at least in the United Kingdom. His no-holds-barred, often fraught and intensely personal interpretations are, rather like those of Charles Munch, the opposite of what the likes of Monteux or Martinon trained us to expect of a French conductor – and this in spite of his early association with Poulenc, of several of whose works he gave the first performance. The British public has largely resolved the enigma by ignoring him, but this attitude is merely insular when critical opinion in many other countries would put him in the "great" bracket. His most distinguished period was probably his conductorship of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and his most notable contributions to recorded music those few where he has been allowed to belie "horses for courses" typecasting and record German music. The Italian Nuova Era company once planned a Beethoven cycle from Prêtre and the VSO; to judge from a broadcast "Eroica" I heard from them around the time of that announcement, we may be the poorer for its non-realisation.

In the present case there are many conspicuous gains. At least the music really and truly is conducted. Every phrase is welded into a paragraph and every paragraph clearly leads the ear onwards towards the next climax, or is equally clearly dying away from the last one. The orchestral colours are mixed and balanced to produce a continual kaleidoscope of sound. If he were conducting a Richard Strauss tone-poem I would have nothing more to say but, strangely for a man whose earliest conducting posts were all in opera houses, he seems to expect the singers to fit in willy-nilly. His brazen climaxes are appallingly inconsiderate and when we hear such an experienced singer and vocal stylist as Nicolai Gedda fairly bawling his head off to be heard above them, we can only wonder that such an unsuitable conductor was chosen.

Richard Osborne, by the way, quotes some fairly enthusiastic comments which appeared in "Gramophone"; since he does not reproduce the critics’ observations regarding Prêtre’s contribution, I will do so myself. Alan Blyth noted that the "ludicrously fast tempo" of J’aurais sur ma poitrine "sorely taxes" Gedda, that Prêtre "is a very committed conductor" though "he is inclined to indulge in that pulling about of the music that so disfigured RCA’s Traviata" and felt that "on constant re-playings his rather excited reading might prove irksome" (October 1969). In his quarterly retrospect of January 1970 Desmond Shawe-Taylor returned to the attack, finding this "another HMV/Angel set which is affected by the vagaries of the conductor". He praised the opening scene but noted that at many other points "Prêtre whips up the speed to a level that is not only wildly at variance with the metronome markings, but makes it impossible for the singers to enunciate with clarity or point". In all fairness, however, the often tetchy EMG Monthly Letter of October 1969 found Prêtre’s performance "idiomatic and, in the main, faithfully reflects the changing moods of the score".

Is all lost? No, for while the orchestral opposition creates a few problems for Gedda, much of the score is of a gentle nature and here his honeyed tones come into their own, as does his psychological understanding of the part. In terms of style this is maybe a midway point between the traditionally more nasal French tenor, who would very likely have used more head voice in his top notes, and the Italian style (i.e. à la Puccini: a 1951 La Scala Performance in Italian under Capuana with Tagliavini and Simionato is sometimes broadcast by Italian Radio and is available from bootleg sources). But the traditional French style proved unable to gain the opera a place on the international stage and Gedda’s assumption was therefore historically important in establishing the piece in the repertoire.

Charlotte was Victoria de los Angeles’s last complete recorded role and one which she had very much wished to undertake. Charlotte is, of course, a mezzo role and, pace Blyth and Shawe-Taylor who found the role well suited to her voice "in its present state" (both critics used this phrase), an ageing soprano whose top notes are not quite what they were is not the same thing as a real mezzo. De los Angeles does many very lovely things and her dulcet tones contrast well with Mady Mesplé’s bright and girlish Sophie, but down in the lower octave she lacks the resonance of a true mezzo, who would presumably engage her chest tones from about E flat downwards. And what about the attack of "Va! Laisse couler mes larmes"? For a soprano this E is in a comfortable middle-lower position below the break, while for a mezzo it is right in the break and the relative effort of producing the note is surely an integral part of Massenet’s conception. De los Angeles’s lovely stream of sound just doesn’t sound like a woman on the verge of breaking down. While one would not wish to go to the other extreme and impose a Slavonic belter such as Obraztsova on this delicate French score (if you do wish for such a thing, Obraztsova recorded it in 1979 with Domingo as Werther and Chailly conducting), a number of genuine mezzos have since essayed the part on disc. All the same, there are lovely things here.

With Mesplé and Soyer as well as the smaller parts we find the French tradition still very much alive and I have nothing but praise here.

Since Werther is now more or less a repertoire piece, it has to be remembered that those early reviewers of the present set were determined not to show their disappointment too much since this was the first recording since 1931 apart from a Nixa-Urania issue of 1954 which Blyth dismissed as "a poor successor". For the record, and ignoring various live issues, I have actually traced three studio recordings made between 1931 and 1969: by Noré and Juyol under Gressier (1948), by Richard and Juyol under Sebastian (1952 – the Urania-Nixa version referred to above) and by Albert Lance and Rita Gorr under Etcheverry (1964), as well as some extracts with Cesare Valletti and Rosalind Elias under René Leibowitz (1962). Incredibly, all this material seems to exist on CD today, though you may have a job hunting it down. The classic 1931 recording, with Georges Thill and Ninon Vallin under Elie Cohen, is available from Naxos.

The present recording, then, did its part in re-establishing Werther in the repertoire, but since 1969 we’ve had, apart from the Domingo/Obraztsova/Chailly (1979), Alfredo Kraus and Tatiana Troyanos under Plasson (1979), Carreras and von Stade under Colin Davis (1980), Hadley and von Otter under Nagano (1995), Alagna and Gheorghiu under Pappano (1999), Vargas and Kasarova under Jurowski (2001) and, very cheaply from Naxos, Haddock and Uria-Monzon (whose Carmen much impressed me) under Casadesus. So all in all this issue, which is hardly one of the "Great Recordings of the Century", will be prized by admirers of the two principals (aren’t we all?), while for Massenet himself most will wish to choose among the above, not forgetting to supplement their choice with the 1931 version.

Christopher Howell

EMI Great Recordings of the Century


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