Arthur HONEGGER (1892-1955)
Jeanne d’Arc au Bûcher (1935)
Speaking Roles: Jeanne d’Arc - Vera Zorina; Frère Dominique - Raymond Gerome
Singing Roles: The Virgin - Frances Yeend (soprano); Marguerite - Carolyn Long (soprano); Catherine - Martha Lipton (contralto); A Voice; Jean de Luxembourg; Regnault de Chartres; Porcus; First Herald - David Lloyd (tenor); Guillaume de Flavy; A Voice; Second Herald - Kenneth Smith(bass); Narrators: Anne Carrere, Charles Mahieu, Jean Julliard, John H. Brown (boy soprano)
Temple University Choirs; St. Peter’s Boys Choir
The Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy
rec. 18 November, 21 December, 1952, Academy of Music, Philadelphia.
PRISTINE AUDIO PACO073 [72:12]
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 know.
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 successful performance.
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.
Ormandy’s recording of Jeanne d’Arc au Bûcher is an important part of the performance history of the work and has much to commend 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.