Georges BIZET (1838-1875)
Clovis et Clothilde - Cantate à trios voix (1857) [34:26]
Te Deum (1858) [18:12]
Katarina Jovanovic (soprano)
Philippe Do (tenor)
Mark Schnaible (bass)
Choeur Régional Nord - Pas-de-Calais
Orchestre National de Lille/Jean-Claude Casadesus
rec. Auditorium du Nouveau Siècle, Lille, France 6-9 July 2009
text and translations available on the Naxos website
NAXOS 8.572270 [52:38]

Despite the delightful Symphony in C, which is even earlier than the works on this disc, it would be an exaggeration to regard Bizet as some kind of infant genius after the manner of Mendelssohn or Mozart. He had to learn his trade as a composer, and the music on this disc demonstrates him doing this, producing interesting and entertaining - if hardly original - music in the process.

Clovis et Clothilde was his second entry for the Prix de Rome. His first attempt in 1856 gained him the second prize but in 1857 he was awarded the Grand Prix de Rome giving him a stipend and the opportunity to study in Rome. The text, by Amédee Burion, is set as a series of recitatives, arias and ensembles telling the story of the conversion of King Clovis to Christianity though his wife Clothilde and Bishop Remigius (Rémy in the French text). It must have been hard for any of those taking part to take much interest in a banal and poorly written libretto and a story which scarcely lent itself to music, so it is unsurprising that essentially Bizet’s work is for the most part little more than pleasant and competently written, largely in the operatic style of the period. I enjoyed hearing it but could not recall clearly any section of it afterwards. It was first revived in 1988 but has had few performances or recordings since that time.

The Te Deum was written in Rome as one of the pieces which winners of the prize were expected to send back to Paris. However given that the composer severely mangled the text he cannot have been surprised that it was regarded as falling outside the liturgical form which had been expected of him. It was first published in 1971 and now occupies a place on the outer fringes of the choral repertoire. At the same time I am not surprised that when choruses do get the chance to sing it they do very much enjoy it, or so I am told, as it is full of varied and tuneful music. The first movement opens with a splendidly vulgar four square tune which also ends the work, and the rest is much more memorable than the earlier Cantata.

The chorus and orchestra do all they can for these two works but I regret that they are let down by soloists who are barely adequate. The bass is the best, albeit lacking in much subtlety. The tenor lacks much in the way of grace or power but his efforts do not get in the way of the effect of the music. It is the soprano, Katarina Jovanovic, who is the biggest disappointment. I gather from the notes that she has sung such heavy parts as Leonora, Amelia and Aida and it may be that the heavy and disfiguring vibrato that affects much of her singing, especially in the Te Deum, is a result of taking these on too early in her career - she is described as a “young singer” on the cover. Whatever the reason for much of the time her singing fails to do justice to music which benefits from greater grace and more precision over pitching.

The inherent interest in these works is great, and overall the defects in the performances are not enough to prevent an appreciation of their merits, but it is a pity that unsatisfactory casting lets down an otherwise intriguing coupling.

John Sheppard

The inherent interest in these works is great, and overall the defects in the performances are not enough to prevent an appreciation of their merits.

see also review by Ian Lace