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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
La Chute de la Maison Usher (completed Juan Allende Blin, 1976)a [22:53]
André CAPLET (1878-1925)
Conte Fantastique (1908)b [16:57]
Florent SCHMITT (1870-1958)
Etude pour le Palais hanté [12:12]
Christine Barbaux (soprano); François le Roux (baritone); Pierre-Yves le Maigat (bass-baritone); Jean-Phillipe Lafont (baritone) (Debussy); Frédérique Cambreling (harp) (Caplet)
Monte-Carlo Philharmonic Orchestra/Georges Prêtre.
rec. Monte-Carlo, Salle Garnier, June 1983. AAD
EMI CLASSICS 47921 [60:02]
Experience Classicsonline


Considering this disc makes me feel rather depressed. That it is, officially, no longer in EMI’s catalogue is no surprise (released as CDC7479212). That ArkivCD bothered with it is something of a godsend. I can imagine this programme being pitched to EMI’s current A&R team: ‘Well, it’s three largely unknown works, scored for large orchestras. We need a solo vocal quartet comprised of soprano, two baritones and a bass-baritone. Two of the composers are unheard of, but there is a piece by Debussy. But it’s not one of his best. And he didn’t finish it. Did I mention that they were all inspired by Edgar Allan Poe, the death-obsessed, ghoulish and frankly disreputable terminal alcoholic American author … who was, in all likelihood, insane?’.
 
If, by some miracle, the proposal wasn’t met with the same incredulity appropriate for ‘Ashton Kutcher plays Hamlet’, you can imagine the response.
 
‘OK, but can we have the frail cataleptic Madeleine being played by Angela Georghiu, the quite possibly mad but rather over-sensitive Roderick by Thomas Hampson, and Bryn Terfel in there somewhere? And how about this; we transpose the role of ‘The Friend’ so that it lies comfortably in Alagna’s range and market it as a love story. We can save capital by using a publicity photo of  ‘RAngela’ as young lovers, taken well over a decade ago just to emphasise the ‘young lovers’ bit. Oh, you’ve already secured the rights to use a strikingly abstract piece of contemporary art instead? Well, we can’t have that…’.
 
Fortunately matters were rather different twenty-five years ago. This album has never really had much exposure; but at least someone at EMI France had the courage to make it. It was, I believe, reissued in the L’Esprit Français series in the early 1990s. Anyone who has tried to get hold of discs from that particular reissue series (as I managed to, finally, with Victoria de los Angeles’ unsurpassed Chausson Poème de l’amour et de la mer) will know just how swiftly they disappeared from the catalogue. I should also add that the reissue was shorn of the rather deluxe booklet of the original; we get extensive notes by Harry Halbreich in French and English, a complete (or not, as I’ll explain shortly) libretto for La Chute de la Maison Usher and copious photographs of composers, author and performers. Unfortunately, back in the mid-1980s, EMI were still using booklet layouts designed for LP; simply reducing the size of the booklet was never going to be satisfactory - as anyone who has tried to make sense of the musical examples printed in the booklet for Karajan’s EMI Rosenkavalier will be fully aware. Doubly unfortunate, then, that ArkivCD’s otherwise admirable commitment to restoring such gems to the catalogue does not extend to quality reproductions of the insert notes. Whilst never illegible, they do require equal doses of patience and squinting.
 
Now to the music and the performances. Debussy never completed his operatic adaptation of Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, one of two Poe projects that occupied the composer for the last fifteen years of his life. It wasn’t until 1977 that Juan Allende Blin’s reconstruction was heard. Blin managed to resurrect both the beginning and the end of Debussy’s work; as a result we have a little over twenty minutes worth of music from what would appear to have been a one-hour piece. Meagre pickings perhaps, but certainly worth hearing. Debussy was probably the ideal composer to adapt Poe’s tortured narratives; there is something in the Gallic temperament that seems to respond particularly well to the decadence and general sense of despair that characterises the author’s quasi-hallucinogenic prose. We are all now familiar with the image of the romantic Parisian bohemians frequenting brothels and drinking Absinthe and so it should probably come as no surprise that Poe’s works were so well received in France - courtesy of translations by Baudelaire and Mallarmé.
 
Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher is perhaps one of his most famous works; Roger Corman hit the jackpot with his low-budget but strangely sumptuous cinematic adaptation of the early 1960s. It was inherently an attempt to provide American audiences with an American alternative to the lucrative Hammer sequence of gothic horrors. It kickstarted a whole sequence of Poe ‘adaptations’ (films ‘inspired by’ Poe’s work) that culminated with the marvellous The Masque of the Red Death in 1964. The latter was, ironically, filmed in England and photographed by a young Nicholas Roeg, who later went on to direct the epitome of disturbing, quasi-hallucinogenic terror: Don’t Look Now. Usher, with its eerie atmosphere and small cast was an ideal project to build on the success of Debussy’s Pelléas. What we have on this recording is enough to suggest that, had it been completed, Debussy’s Usher would have been a minor masterpiece. It certainly belongs to the subcategory of ‘harmonically adventurous’ that can be applied to many of his later works. Blin has scored it for a large orchestra (quadruple wind) but rarely deploys the full forces at his disposal. There is a chamber-like intimacy to the results that entirely suits the narrative. This may not be the most memorable Debussy you are likely to hear, but from the opening cor anglais solo you are gripped by the composer’s masterly control of atmosphere.
 
In this performance, Prêtre conducts with great efficiency and his native French-speaking vocal quartet is both mellifluous and insightful. Unfortunately for all involved, this still remains just a torso of what could have been a compelling drama; whilst there are copious incidental pleasures to be had it still does not really add up to a satisfying whole.
 
No, that is where the couplings are important. I can describe André Caplet’s Conte Fantastique (after Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death) briefly; well-crafted, exciting and at times sounding remarkably like Bernard Herrmann’s score for Hitchcock’s Psycho - both are similarly scored - it makes for seventeen eventful minutes. Cambreling tackles the solo harp part well, but the strings of the Monte Carlo orchestra struggle with some of the higher-lying passages.
 
The last work on the disc is by a somewhat wide margin the most entertaining. Florent Schmitt’s approach to Poe’s poem ‘The Haunted Palace’ will come as no surprise to anyone who is at all familiar with the composer’s work. It is about as ripe as a late-romantic tone poem can get, and it proves that such an approach was ideal for conveying the neuroses of the drug and drink-addled author. The original text, handily reproduced in the booklet, is perhaps Poe’s greatest work, an absolutely chilling and stunningly crated poem, certainly on a par with ‘The Raven’. It also has one of the most iconic last stanzas in literature:
 
            And travellers, now, within that valley,
            Through the red-litten windows see
            Vast forms, that move fantastically
            To a discordant melody.
            While, like a ghastly rapid river,
            Through the pale door
            A hideous throng rush out for ever.
            And laugh- but smile no more.

Schmitt certainly conveys the impression of ‘vast forms’ moving fantastically and the whole phantasmagoric display bucks and heaves in the most vulgar and decadent way imaginable. I loved it.
 
All in all, a very worthwhile purchase. I do, however, feel that EMI themselves should re-issue this disc. It is not simply a case of the booklet being none-too-well reproduced, but that the recording itself needs to be remastered. The chamber-like textures of the Debussy come off best, with admirable clarity, but the Caplet sounds a little monochrome. Worse still is the Schmitt, which sounds rather opaque and certainly does not allow justice to be done to this underrated and overlooked composer.
 
Still, we must be thankful that ArkivCD are making rarities such as this available. For those with an enquiring mind, this is pretty much an essential purchase. I doubt very much that EMI will reissue it anytime soon, and I do worry about the longevity of Arkiv’s ‘made to order’ scheme. My advice? Take advantage of the sterling-dollar exchange rate and buy it now. And the cover art (a 1978 number by Jean-Pierre Zenobel) is reassuringly striking and abstract.
 
Owen Walton
 


 


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