I first came to know Honegger’s remarkable and moving dramatic oratorio through Serge Baudo’s excellent 1974 Supraphon recording. 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 andFrère Dominique were too distantly balanced.
There’s also an historic issue in the shape of Eugene Ormandy’s 1952 recording (review). That was the second recording of the work. The first one, which was kindly drawn to my attention by the distinguished conductor, Adriano was made in 1943 in Brussels. Given the wartime conditions and the fact that this was then a very recent score, it’s an amazing achievement. That was once available on the Dante Lys label and it may still be possible to obtain a copy. Though the Prologue is not included - it was not added to the score until 1944, I believe - this recording, conducted by Louis de Voght is well worth hearing by anyone who loves the work. In addition to these audio recordings there’s a DVD of an extremely fine staged performance given in Montpellier.
Since both the Baudo and the Ozawa versions were made some time ago there’s a need for a modern audio version and this is now supplied by Helmuth Rilling Though it’s not explicitly stated in the booklet this was clearly made at live concerts and Rilling and the engineers have balanced the vast forces very well.
One distinct advantage that this new set enjoys is that it boasts the best Jeanne since Nelly Borgeaud on the Baudo set. I’ve always thought Borgeaud was the most convincing exponent of the role in terms of suggesting the heroine as a young, naïve and vulnerable girl - though one with a sufficiently tough inner core to take on her mission to save France. The Swiss actress, Sylvie Rohrer, is just as good. The other speaking role is that of Jeanne’s confidant, Frère Dominique. Eörs Kisfaludy gives an excellent portrayal and I thought his French was very good indeed though he is Hungarian. Baudo’s Michel Favory has the edge, however, not so much because he’s a Francophone actor but because his voice sounds a bit younger and lighter. The scenes between the two characters are very well done on this new recording.
The Rilling set disappoints somewhat in the conductor’s handling of a couple of crucial scenes where he takes the music too deliberately - it’s significant that his performance takes about 84 minutes, including a bit of applause at the end, whereas Baudo takes 74:47 and Ozawa is swifter still at 69:04. The first of these rather deliberately paced passages is Scene IV where Jeanne is arraigned before a court of animals. Baudo takes just 8:09 compared with Rilling’s 10:42. As you might infer from those respective timings Baudo is much crisper and more lively here; the satire has real bite in his version. Rilling’s account is dramatic enough but I prefer Baudo. I have an even stronger preference for Baudo in Scene VI where the kings and nobles play cards. Here the problem is not one of speeds - both conductors pace the scene in a pretty similar fashion. The issue here is that some of the men taking subsidiary parts for Rilling, and especially at least one of the three Heralds, overdo the ‘funny’ voices in their attempts to characterise. The result sounds like the vocal equivalent of ham acting. Baudo’s gentlemen are not above providing a few satirical voices but they’re more restrained and so the scene flows more satisfactorily.
On the other hand, Rilling handles most of the score very well. He imparts colour and liveliness to Scene VIII, parts of which are the weaker passages in the score. As the story reaches its tragic but redemptive dénouement Rilling directs a most impressive and, indeed, moving performance, maintaining and building the tension successfully.
He obtains very good, incisive playing from the orchestra and the adult choir sings admirably. So too does the children’s choir, who do well in Scene IX, sounding like cultivated urchins - and I mean that as a compliment. Among the vocal soloists I’ve already mentioned the overdone vocal acting by some of the subsidiary soloists - I wonder if these are drawn from the choir. Karen Wierzba is in good form as La Vierge but Kismara Pessati is a disappointment as Cathérine, sounding very matronly.
The recording is excellent. The complex ensembles are well conveyed and, as an instance of the benefits of modern technology, the reach and breadth of the sound makes the start of Scene 1 very dramatic. The audience is commendably silent though there is applause - after a reasonable interval - at the end. The Baudo recording, made under studio conditions, is now forty years old and is in analogue. It doesn’t have the depth of modern digital sound but it’s still pretty impressive and packs quite a punch at climaxes. The Supraphon technology also imparts a bit more atmosphere at times, chiefly in the spoken dialogues between Jeanne and Frère Dominique; also in passages where some distancing is involved. However, it must be repeated that this is a studio recording and it may be a bit easier to manage these matters than when recording a concert. The ondes martenot registers well in the Rilling performance but is even more thrillingly present for Baudo.
Hänssler’s documentation is satisfactory though for my taste the notes are somewhat flowery and I would have preferred more emphasis on the work itself and a little less of the annotator’s reflections on Jeanne d’Arc. It’s unfortunate that only the French libretto is provided without any translations. That’s fine if you have alternative access to the words but otherwise the French text may be hard to understand.
Summing up, there are one or two drawbacks to this performance but there’s much about it to admire. It’s a good version of this remarkable and often eloquent score in up to date digital sound though I think the Baudo version is a better all-round alternative if you can get hold of a copy.