An occasional series by Christopher Howell
3. GEORGES TZIPINE (1907-1987)
Standard bearer for “Les Six”
Georges Tzipine has maintained a ghostly permanence in the record catalogues as the conductor of the orchestrally-accompanied items in Boris Christoff’s famous survey of Mussorgsky’s songs. My discovery that he may have slightly more claim on our memories is due to a blog called “Squirrels Nest”. This blogger has made available five Tzipine LPs from the 1950s, with music by Honegger, Rivier and Roussel. And not only this. He has assembled a few biographical facts and attempted a discography, though with a cut-off date of 1958. Unfortunately, this blog carries a warning that it is likely to disappear from view quite soon. So anyone whose appetite is whetted had better not lose time. Supplementing these, and not under threat of disappearance, are two LPs dedicated to “Les Six”, which can be downloaded in MP3 form very cheaply from the Naxos Classicsonline site. I also managed to hear an LP of extracts from Bizet’s opera Ivan IV.
A 2-CD set called “Les Rarissimes de Georges Tzipine” was issued in the 1990s. It seems to be unavailable, but it may not be too hard to track down a second-hand copy on Amazon or Ebay. Similarly, if you can play vinyl and don’t expect to find all you want immediately, Tzipine LPs seem to turn up on Amazon and E-bay from time to time.
As with the other articles in this series, the reader is asked to take this as a study of the artist’s career and legacy, rather than a specific guide to what is available now. The following information is a combination of “Squirrel’s Nest”, Wikipedia and anything else I could find.
Georges Samuel Tzipine was born on 22 June 1907. He was of Russian origin - some accounts say Russian-born. If the latter is true, he was nevertheless Parisian by upbringing. He trained as a violinist at the Paris Conservatoire, but by the 1930s, encouraged by Reynaldo Hahn, he was working as a conductor. He also worked as a composer and was musical director of Gaumont Newsreel from the mid-Twenties. His first film score, written before his twentieth birthday, seems to have been “Le Rat des villes et le Rat des champs” (1926). In France in those years, composers were not divided into “film composers” and “real” composers. Tzipine therefore became associated with the leading French and Paris-based composers of the day, in particular with the Swiss Arthur Honegger. After the war he emerged as a major interpreter of the composers of this generation. In 1953, for example, he recorded all five of Honegger’s symphonies for French Radio in the presence of the composer.
Apart from the Gaumont appointment, Tzipine appears to have worked in France as a free-lance conductor, though I did find fleeting reference to his having been the conductor of the Cannes Symphony Orchestra. However, from 1960 to 1965 he was conductor of the Victorian (now Melbourne) Symphony Orchestra in Australia. In England he appeared regularly with the Hallé Orchestra in the 1950s and, in 1968, conducted the première of Ruth Gipps’ Horn Concerto with the BBC Welsh Orchestra. In the United States he appeared particularly with the Houston Symphony Orchestra. He remained active until at least the 1970s and died on 8 December 1987.
Of the LPs I have been able to hear, three are dedicated to Honegger - and at least a further two were made, including the oratorio “Cris du Monde”.
I began with the Fourth Symphony, “Deliciae Basiliensis”, and was immediately amazed how this symphony can bear very different interpretations from conductors who had known and worked with the composer. The following table will give some idea:
|Desarzens, Naples 1960
|Munch, Rome 1966
In general the slowest, Tzipine finds mystery and a sense of wonder in the symphony. Even the rowdy proceedings in the last movement are, as it were, in inverted commas. The quieter music takes over again as if it were the real business of the symphony.
The brisker Victor Desarzens takes a neo-classical view. The shape of the symphony is clearer in his hands. Mystery and wonder worry him not, but there is a vernal freshness and a sense of awakening joy that are just as valid.
Munch’s timings suggest he might have found a middle way, but no, he’s found his own way. It isn’t even true that his tempi are mid-way between the two, since he is far more flexible, sometimes faster than either of the others, sometimes much slower. He finds a voluptuous, perfumed hedonism in the music. The melodies are much more sharply etched and, indeed, he is clearly a master-manipulator of the orchestra in a way the other two estimable conductors are not, quite.
This LP was completed by “Mouvement Symphonique no.3”. Tzipine projects the argument by weight and power. In the Third Symphony, “Symphonie Liturgique”, this approach worked splendidly. Here, however, Honegger himself is a little less inspired, and maybe a touch more urgency would have helped. No doubts about the noble closing threnody, though; both Honegger and Tzipine are at their best again.
It’s a staggering contrast to hear Hermann Scherchen’s Westminster recording of this piece with a fired-up Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. The tempi are not so different, but textures are brilliantly defined, almost scrubbed clean. The trumpet rides over the opening paragraph as Scherchen drives the music along like a modern Ride of the Valkyries. Arguably, he’s vulgarizing the piece, but he grabs your attention and holds it. In the closing section, Scherchen is cooler, yet his numbed restraint is perhaps more moving. He elucidates the textures, directing the listener’s ear to the melodic movement, and conveys better the long line. As in the Munch comparison, the excellent Tzipine cannot quite measure up to one of the podium giants of the 20th century (Columbia FCX 337, rec. Salle de la Mutualité, Paris, 3 March 1955, French National Radio Orchestra).
Tzipine’s recording of Honegger’s Cantate de Noël was the second to be made. It was Honegger’s last work and a Paul Sacher commission. Completed at the beginning of 1953, Sacher gave the première in Basle on 18 December of the same year. It was a triumphant success, and Sacher came to Paris the following year to record it for Philips. The choral forces used were the same as for the slightly later Tzipine version - The Elisabeth Brasseur Choir and Les Petites Chanteurs de Versailles. Sacher conducted the Lamoureux Orchestra and the recording was made in St. Clothilde with Maurice Duruflé as organist. Tzipine’s orchestra was the Paris Conservatoire.
Given Sacher’s vital contribution to 20th century music as the commissioner and first interpreter of a long line of major works, it may seem strange that there was no great clamour for him to conduct recordings of most of them. A comparison between the Sacher and Tzipine versions of this cantata perhaps tells us why. Not that Sacher is bad: this is the sort of typical “first performance” of a difficult modern work where they all get to the end without embarrassment, the public gets a fair idea of what it’s all about, but balance and nuance are pretty well as they come. The long crescendo of the opening section is better graded by Tzipine; under Sacher the forces reach full volume about a third of the way in and then just have to go on the same. In the intriguing central quodlibet, where Honegger scatters bits of famous carols around the choir and orchestra, and in the final orchestral epilogue where he provides more of the same, under Tzipine the melodies waft in and out magically. Sacher brings out “Silent Night” wherever it comes and, for the rest, you hear whichever one is on top. Neither recording can really cope with the big explosion of joy that ushers in the third section but Tzipine seems be giving it more swing. Sacher’s one advantage is his baritone soloist, Michel Roux - Pierre Mollet is more wavery, but he got a second chance in 1961, when he was chosen for the Ansermet recording, the first in stereo. Incidentally, this is one case where Tzipine is slightly faster than his rival, but it’s a matter of seconds.
The LP was completed by the Third Symphony, “Symphonie Liturgique”. Tzipine concentrates on power and weight, without letting things get too precipitate. As in the Christmas Cantata, he grades his dynamics skilfully. The grim march that opens the last movement is allowed to reach a true fortissimo only at its climax. The moving epilogue is exquisitely shaped, coloured with the sort of control over string phrasing and vibrato that could only come from a conductor who is a string player himself (Columbia FCX 336).
The third Honegger LP brings together the three concerted works. In the Piano Concertino, Monique Bérard and Tzipine express unhurried enjoyment. Fabienne Jaquinart and Anatole Fistoulari, conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra (MGM E3041), are swifter (09:31 compared with 10:52). Though certainly not frenetic, they are smoochier, more streetwise, ironic. It’s difficult to find one preferable to the other, or even know which Honegger himself might have preferred.
Honegger’s Cello concerto alternates, in its brief trajectory (just over 16 minutes), some of the most gorgeous, almost bluesy, music ever written for cello and orchestra with passages of inexplicable violence. Here the artist is none less than Paul Tortelier. Tzipine and the great cellist cover the bluesy moments with a loving, rose-tinted haze that could only have come out of Edith Piaf’s Paris and do their duty by the violent bits.
The Concerto da Camera for flute, cor anglais and strings, one of Honegger’s most amiable works, is played with warm, even lush affection by Fernand Dufrène (flute) and Paul Taillefer (cor anglais). The orchestra on this disc is the French National Radio Orchestra (Columbia FCX 665, rec. February 1957, Salle de la Mutualité, Paris).
The general tendency for Tzipine to be a shade slower than his colleagues in Honegger doesn’t seem to carry through to his Roussel. Here are his timings for the Fourth Symphony, together with those of a performance under Jean Martinon in Milan, of which I don’t know the exact date, and one from 29 October 1953 in which Hermann Scherchen conducted the French National Radio Symphony Orchestra - you can find the latter at René Gagnaux’s “Mon Musée Musical”.
Tzipine, in fact, drives the outer movements along with breezy optimism, while offering a warm-hearted, expansive slow movement. Martinon brings a sense of striving to the outer movements, a sense that the jubilation is more hard-won. This is certainly a valid alternative, but his in the slow movement, outside the finely passionate climaxes, he seems afraid to bore the audience and moves things on with a stiff upper-lip.
It’s not just in the slow movement that Scherchen seems to be conducting a different work. He has a control of ebb and flow the other two do not attempt. He can whip the orchestra into a Mahlerian frenzy in just a few bars, and subside into introvert musings in just a few more. It could be argued that he is bringing the full weight of Mahlerian symphonic writing upon a work that is actually quite different - as Tzipine and Martinon knew very well. Still, it is an enthralling performance and, if Roussel tends to leave you lukewarm, Scherchen is the most likely conductor to change your mind.
Also on this LP was the Suite in F. Here, differences between Tzipine and another German conductor, Hans Rosbaud, whose broadcast with the South-West German Radio Orchestra is once again available from M. Gagnaux, are much smaller. Tzipine is just a few seconds shorter in each movement. He exudes a sense of beaming pleasure in the outer movements and in the central sarabande he benefits, not so much in interpretation as from the more French sound of his orchestra (Capitol P-8104, c.1955, Lamoureux Orchestra).
Tzipine’s coupling of the Third and Fifth Symphonies by Jean Rivier (1896-1987) won a Grand Prix du Disque. Rivier taught composition at the Paris Conservatoire from 1948 to 1966. He was also closely associated with French Radio. In later years his work, modern enough in the 1930s, was shunted aside as the Boulez-Darmstadt school rose to prominence. Of his eight symphonies (1931-1978), nos. 2, 3, 4 and 8 were for strings only. The third seems to have been the most successful. It has been recorded twice since Tzipine’s pioneering disc, including a version under Jean-François Paillard. The Tzipine recording of the fifth seems to be still the only one. Several of the other symphonies have not been recorded at all.
The third (1958) would indeed be a worthwhile addition to any string orchestra’s repertoire, though I did wonder if, after the very attractive opening “Allegro quasi Pastorella”, energy and conviction were brought in as a substitute for real inspiration. Tzipine shows again his origins as a violinist. He obtains a range of dynamics, colour and articulation that surely present the best case for the work.
Using a full orchestra, the fifth symphony (1950) may remind British listeners of similarly tough, hard-hitting symphonies in a modern but not ultra-modernist vein by such composers as Lennox Berkeley, Alan Rawsthorne or Arnold Cooke. I would hesitate to describe it as actually memorable but its overall effect is a strong one. On the basis of the Honegger and Roussel comparisons made above, it may be that Munch or Scherchen could have given it an even finer showing. But they chose not to do so - so far as I know - and in any case, Tzipine seems to me in exceptionally dedicated form here. I doubt if a new version could outshine this one except in actual recording quality (Pathé DTX 286, rec. Salle de la Mutualité, Paris, February-April 1958, French National Radio Orchestra).
Tzipine’s 2-LP tribute to “Les Six” was set down with the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra in 1953. A brief, bright, bustling and occasionally lyrical Ouverture by Germaine Tailleferre gets things off to a sizzling start. This piece was originally written in 1931 for a comic opera “Zoulaïna” which was never completed. The overture was premièred in 1932 as an independent piece by Pierre Monteux.
Honegger’s music for “Amphion” was a collaboration with Paul Valéry, an ambitious hybrid of opera and ballet in 12 movements. Completed in 1929 and premièred in 1931, with great success, it fell into oblivion, though a complete recording has now been made. In an attempt to wrest something from the debacle, Honegger put together a triptych - Prelude, Fugue and Postlude - in 1948. It is a big, impressive piece and doesn’t sound like warmed-up leftovers at all.
“Secheresses” is a choral cantata written by Poulenc in 1937 to a poem by the American Edward James, who commissioned it from the composer himself. I can confirm that it’s not one of those vocal works you can enjoy even if you don’t know what it’s about, because I’ve been trying to do just that. I daresay the original LP gave the text, in which case Classicsonline might have provided a scan, but they haven’t. It seems very dramatic and the musicians all seem very convinced. On this evidence I wouldn’t like to comment on the fact that Poulenc himself had misgivings about it. The Elisabeth Brasseur Choir sing.
“Le printemps au fond de la mer”, by Louis Durey, is a song for soprano with orchestral accompaniment. It was written in 1920 to a poem by Cocteau. Here, too, it would have been nice to know what is really happening, but since it is clearly lyrical rather than dramatic I felt at less of a disadvantage. It’s a very “watery” piece with lots of cool countermelodies entwining around each other in the wind instruments. Denise Duval has an attractive soprano voice though her intonation is unsteady here and there.
Auric’s “Phèdre” is a fairly parallel case to Honegger’s “Amphion”, a “Choreographic Tragedy” in one act with libretto by Cocteau. It was produced for the first time in 1950. A complete recording is now available. No doubt this suite, like Honegger’s triptych, was an attempt to save something from a work which, though apparently well-received, seemed unlikely to be heard again in full. It’s certainly an impressive, gritty score with a pile-driving command of the orchestra. I’m not sure that it can stand on its own like the Honegger, though. While generally admiring the single sections, I felt I needed to know what was happening.
Milhaud’s Second Symphony was a Koussevitzky commission. It was first played by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1944, with Milhaud himself conducting.
Though certain of Milhaud’s works are simply gorgeous, the vast number of them, plus the discovery that a fair amount of his output consists of arid exercises in ill-fitting counterpoint, doesn’t exactly induce further exploration. The first two movements of this five-movement piece rather fall in this latter category, despite some fascinating sounds in the second. But it’s worth persevering. The third movement is a long-breathed, deeply-felt - and uncluttered - elegiac movement while the fourth is a charming intermezzo. The finale, entitled “Allelujah”, is perhaps more jolly than truly joyful - as I suppose was intended - but, within its limits, it makes a lively conclusion.
In 1953 these were all first recordings. Though only the Tailleferre seems not to have been recorded again in the CD era, the package as a whole, which also contains a spoken introduction by Jean Cocteau, remains an essential document. Tzipine appears in his finest hour here, extracting playing of tremendous conviction with a wide range of orchestral colour and dynamic shading. The recordings are good mono for the date. Whatever the more recent recordings may offer - much more detailed sound, obviously - a sense of history exudes from these discs. The timbres of the old Paris Conservatoire Orchestra have gone for ever, yet the composers surely expected them, and the conductor is a man who knew all these composers and had worked with them frequently (Columbia FCX 264-5, 1953).
And lastly, back a century to Bizet’s Ivan IV. This rare opera was recorded complete in May 1957 with a cast consisting of Janine Micheau (Marie), Henri Legay (Igor), Michel Sénéchal (young Bulgarian), Michel Roux (Ivan IV), Pierre Savignol (Temrouk), Louis Nogera (Yourloff), plus the French National Radio Choir and Orchestra.
I’ve been able to hear only an LP of extracts. On the strength of this it would be risky to say more of the music itself than that it seems fluently constructed and melodic without ever quite opening into the sort of gorgeous melodies we expect from Bizet.
Tzipine sounds at home in the opera house, conducting with flexibility and vitality. He wisely chooses a narrative approach rather than a dramatic one, making the most of the score without overheating it.
The names in the cast will tell French opera buffs all they want to know. For the most part they will not be disappointed. Roux is a splendidly firm and authoritative Ivan while Legay, as Igor, is the sort of French tenor we have long ceased to hear. His plangent tones and honeyed head voice recall a style that only really works in French music, with the result that, in this global age when singers have to do everything, it is no longer taught even in France.
It has to be admitted that Janine Micheau’s pliant, attractively reedy voice is stretched to its limits, maybe even a mite beyond them, in her big Act III solo. In the equally big Act III duet with Igor, though, the Legay’s voice seems to carry hers with it, showing her at her best. This, for me, was the highlight of the disc, together, maybe, with some of the choral work.
This would appear to be something of a “choral opera”, and here an expansive modern recording would obviously be at an advantage. On the other hand, this old set contains features that are unlikely to be reproduced, or reproducible, today.
Quite a few more Tzipine LPs sound interesting, and by no means everything on them has been recorded again. Barraud’s “Symphonie de Numance”, for example, and shorter works by Thiriet, Sauguet and Landowski. He was also the first to record Florent Schmitt’s Psalm 47. It will have occurred to the reader by now that Tzipine’s discography consists almost entirely of French music, and French music from the period of which he was to some extent the standard bearer. Non-French works occur rarely, and only as accompaniments: Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” with Raoul Gola (1939) and, with Samson François, Chopin’s First Concerto and Hindemith’s “Four Temperaments”. Evidently he hit it off with François, since they also recorded together François’s own Piano Concerto and the “Concerto Pastoral” by René Challan. A rather curious non-French item was a complete “La Bohème” sung in French with soloists of the Opéra-Comique. Several French conductors - Monteux, Munch, Paray - have protested at being pigeon-holed as French conductors of French music. But, if they didn’t record all the German classics they wished, they recorded enough for us to hear that they could perfectly well conduct them. Even among French conductors who have recorded mostly French music, Tzipine must be unusual; no “Symphonie Fantastique”, no Franck Symphony, no “La Mer”. Apart from a pre-war Boléro and the accompaniment to Marguerite Long’s second version of Ravel’s G Major Concerto - which you can obtain from Andrew Rose’s Pristine Audio - the nearest he got to standard French repertoire was a Fauré disc of “Masques and Bergamasques”, “Dolly” and some “Pelléas et Mélisande” pieces.
Did the recording companies know what they were doing? Was Tzipine effective only in post-Impressionists and modernists from the 1920s and 1930? The reminiscences of a Melbourne critic, Clive O’Connell, suggest he may have been.
Tzipine occupied the position of "permanent" conductor [of the Victorian Symphony Orchestra] for five years, but, for me, the only memorable elements of his reign were his direction of a villainously bad reading of Beethoven's Choral Symphony towards the end of his time here and the fact that, once departed, he made no effort to come back (The Age, 6 December 2002).
It appears that Tzipine was so harassed by unfriendly critics while in Melbourne that he lashed out at them in the press after his departure, arousing this comment from a concertgoer:
Sir: The claim by the former director of the Victorian Symphony Orchestra (Mr. Georges Tzipine) that critics will ruin the music life of Melbourne (“The Age” 28/9) will certainly not be shared by André Cluytens, Hans Richter-Haaser, Ingrid Haebler, Henryk Szerying and other visiting musicians who received such raving notices in the musical press.
Let us hope the Mr. Tzipine will receive more favourable criticism wherever he conducts in future.
Let us hope that his prospective audiences will appreciate his interpretations of, say, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony or Schubert’s Great, more than some of us did in Melbourne.
Peter Mladenov (South Yarra) (The Age, 28 September 1964 - I question this date since Tzipine remained in Melbourne till 1965).
On the other hand, an exchange in the rmcr Google group produced a rather different picture:
- Is this Georges Tzipine? I used to watch him conduct the Victorian (now Melbourne) Symphony Orchestra in the 1960s ..
- Yes it is the same, a great conductor for French music....
- And rather wasted on the VSO, reputedly one the sourest orchestras in the world at that time. I remember hearing a tremendous Shostakovich 5th from him (2002).
We may also note that Tzipine gave lectures on music, not just on “Les Six” but on Beethoven too, in Australia and in the USA. This implies he had a fairly intellectual approach. Could it be that his interpretations of the classics were along the lines of his compatriot René Leibowitz, whose performance of, for example, Schubert’s “Great” C major symphony could seem revelatory to some, but insufferably dogmatic, even “villainous”, to those not attuned to receive it? Any memories from readers would be very welcome.
What we can say is that Tzipine left a small legacy of recordings of music by his French contemporaries that remains of inestimable value. This would be so even if the only reasons were that the conductor was a friend and colleague of the composers and that the orchestras themselves retained the peculiarly French colours the composers would have expected. In his attention to dynamics, colour and structure, Tzipine was, at least in this repertoire, an excellent conductor, and one who could draw performances of considerable conviction from his orchestras.