I first came to know Honegger’s remarkable and moving dramatic oratorio
through Serge Baudo’s excellent 1974 Supraphon recording
(11 0557-2). Atmospherically recorded, Baudo’s version
enjoys a clear advantage in that, although recorded in Prague
with Czech choirs and the Czech Philharmonic, it boasts an entirely
Francophone roster of soloists. Seiji Ozawa’s 1989 live
recording for DG, made in the Saint-Denis basilica in Paris,
had much to commend it but the recorded balance in a reverberant
acoustic wasn’t ideal; in particular, the key soloists,
Jeanne and Frère Dominique were too distantly balanced.
That Ozawa recording is not currently available, so far as I
I had no idea this Ormandy recording existed; I wonder if it
was the first recording of the work. It was remarkably enterprising
since it came only fourteen years after the work’s first
performance, under the baton of Paul Sacher, and only four years
after Charles Munch led the US première in New York in
1948. The Jeanne in that American première was the artist
we hear on this recording, the dancer and actress, Vera Zorina
(1917-2003) who also took the role in every other American performance
thereafter until this recording was made. In a note on the Pristine
Classical website, Mark Obert-Thorn, the producer of this reissue,
points out that at the time Miss Zorina was married to Goddard
Lieberson, the president of Columbia Records. Mr Obert-Thorn
comments that her involvement in the recording was not due to
nepotism but, rather, to her experience in the role. Actually,
I wonder if the reverse was true and that Miss Zorina interested
her husband in making what was a most adventurous decision for
the time to record this work. Incidentally, the cover artwork
is based on a photograph of her in the role of Jeanne d’Arc.
Vera Zorina makes a formidable Jeanne, deeply committed to the
role and highly involving in the way she puts it across. As
the work unfolds and Jeanne meets her fate, Zorina declaims
her lines with an increasing fervour, appropriate to the visionary
side of the character. She’s not a native Francophone
- she was born in Germany, I believe - but her French sounds
pretty good to me. The only reservation I have is that generally
she doesn’t sound young enough - Jeanne was only a teenager.
Nelly Borgeaud (for Baudo) is much better in this respect. The
Belgian actor, Raymond Gerome (1920-2002) is an excellent Frère
Dominique and I think he’s pretty much on a par with Michel
Favory on the Baudo recording.
The subsidiary parts are mainly well taken though there’s
some doubling up by the tenor and bass soloists. That doesn’t
happen on the Baudo recording, which was clearly a more lavish
production, and some of his lesser soloists are better than
in the American recording - notably the ridiculously pompous
Porcus. Ormandy’s adult choir does a very good job. The
children’s chorus do well enough though I’m sure
a comparable choir would be much better nowadays as standards
have risen so much in the last six decades.
As you’d expect, the Philadelphia Orchestra plays very
well though I’m pretty sure that the important ondes martenot
part is missing, which is a shame. Quite possibly it simply
wasn’t possible to engage someone to play this exotic
instrument in those days. Ormandy himself conducts the piece
very well, pacing and bringing together the big, multi-layered
ensembles expertly. In the quiet passages of dialogue between
Jeanne and Frère Dominique he allows the music the space
it needs in order to generate atmosphere. Though Baudo is masterly
in maintaining the tension and drama in his performance Ormandy
isn’t far behind him.
As for the recording itself, it would be idle to pretend that
it can cope with the biggest climaxes - the recording is sixty
years old, after all. Having said that, the sound is pretty
good for its age; not only does a good deal of detail register
but passages such as the start of ‘The Voices from Heaven’
(track 2), where the distant, hushed choir is heard with quiet
flute and muted trumpets a bit closer, are well reported. Mark
Obert-Thorn says in a note that “The present transfer
was made from the best portions of two first edition blue label
American Columbia pressings. There are some instances of distortion,
dropout and studio noises which are on the original LP master
tape.” I think he’s done a pretty good job and any
sonic limitations don’t get in the way of enjoying this
A more major drawback is that there’s no text, merely
a synopsis of each scene on the Pristine website. Paul Claudel’s
libretto isn’t straightforward unless you’re pretty
fluent in French and an understanding of what’s going
on is essential if one is to appreciate the work properly. However,
many people will acquire this performance as an adjunct to one
of the modern versions, I suppose, rather than as a first choice
so accessing a libretto may be feasible.
Jeanne d’Arc au Bûcher is a remarkable, sincere
work, very direct in its expression. I find much of it very
moving. The Baudo recording remains a clear first choice but
this Ormandy recording is an important part of the performance
history of the work and has much to commend it. I’m delighted
that Pristine have been so enterprising as to issue it.
Following the publication of this review the distinguished
conductor, Adriano, who has made several recordings of Honegger’s
music, has written to say that the first recording of Jeanne
d’Arc au Bûcher was made in Brussels in 1943.
This version excluded the Prologue – with Honegger’s
approval – and therefore began with Scene 1.
The recording featured the Ensemble de la Société
Philharmonique de Bruxelles and the Cäcilenchor Antwerpen.
The principal roles were taken by Marthe Dugard (Jeanne D'Arc)
and Raymond Gérome (Frère Dominique). The conductor
was Louis de Vocht. The performance, which Adriano describes
as “quite an exciting one”, was available at one
time on the Dante Lys label but is now deleted. Information
about this and other recordings of the work can be found here.
We are grateful to Adriano for this information.