French Composers Conduct
Henri TOMASI (1901-1971)

- symphonic poem for chorus, soloists and orchestra (1931) [16:37]
Florent SCHMITT (1870-1958)
La Tragédie de Salomé
op. 50 (1907) [2758]
Philippe GAUBERT (1879-1941)
Les Chants de la Mer
(1929) [15:12]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
(1928) [15:41]
Grand Orchestre symphonique and chorus/Henri Tomasi, rec. 3 June 1935, from PGT18-19
Orchestre des Concerts Walther Straram/Florent Schmitt, rec. 18-19 April 1930, from LFX68-71
Orchestre symphonique de Paris/Philippe Gaubert, rec. 3-4 April 1930, from 69335-36
Orchestre de l'Association des Concerts Lamoureux/Maurice Ravel, rec. 9 January 1930, from 66947-48
DUTTON CDBP9789 [75:28]

These valuable resurrections of early composer-conducted recordings are from 1930s Paris, along similar lines, though with different performances, to a VAI recording from a few years ago (review).

Arching over all four works is the French adulation for the exotic. This streamed from the then wide-flung corners of the French colonies (or DOM) and various world expositions (especially Paris 1889). In this the French musical world was not alone.

Dutton have done wonders with these 80 year old recordings. The Ida Rubinstein-inspired Ravel Boléro already has iconic status but here the CEDAR process smiled on the no doubt distressed originals. I do not recall any previous reissue sounding as clean as this – true, perspectives shift as 78 sides change, but the overall remorseless trajectory is fully in place. It sounds truly magnificent only suffering with the higher woodwind (7:55) which shred and spall. The final upheaval has to pull back on the volume and so the effect is rather parried. This would have been the world premiere recording but for Piero Coppola having recorded it the day before the Ravel sessions.

Tomasi's Tam-Tam is something of an exotic temple rite with tolling ostinati and an ambience of Stravinskian devastation (c.f. Le Sacre). Wild Bakstian abandon is lofted by choral war-cries. The unnamed solo soprano comes in for ‘La chanson des sables’ which rises from ecstatic reflection to wild incessant rhythms, chorally goaded punctuation and wild (well, fairly wild) shouts from the choir. There’s then a return to the dripping sultriness of the beginning. Tomasi, who in the 1930s was music director of French National Radio’s colonial service, wrote the music from which this was drawn for a radio feature. We are told that the mise-en-scène is the Oubangui River and the region surrounding the border between the French and Belgian Congo. Tomasi’s is a name to note down for further appraisal. Try his Requiem pour la Paix on Marco Polo and his concertos on Lyrinx and on Farao B108062. His opera Don Juan de Mañara was once on Forlane UCD 16652/53 and his Ulysse ou Le Beau Périple (ORTF, 1971) can be had from a source via ebay. There are eleven operas in total and quite a few more tone poems.

Schmitt’s La Tragédie de Salomé boils slowly and makes the most of that Antar-style treasure of a melody in the Prelude. There's bright aggressive liveliness in the ‘Danse des Perles’, Rimskian effusions in the groaning and surging ‘Les enchantement sur la mer’, a return to that irresistible first movement melody in ‘Danse des éclairs’ and a perfunctory (only 1.46) wind devil of a stamping finale in ‘Danse de l'effroi’ which crashes and smashes in ruthlessly tempestuous fashion.

Philippe Gaubert has been smiled on by Timpani and there are now two superb modern collections of the orchestral music (1C1135 and 1C1186). They’re not to be overlooked. This present recording of Les Chants de la Mer might be seen as in the same region as Debussy’s La Mer. It is a sequence of three tone poems – ‘Chants et parfums’ – ‘La ronde sur la falaise’ and ‘Là-bas très loin sur la mer’ - there's a title for you. This recording has been reissued previously on an all-Gaubert double on Alpha 801 VAI. This is a work you will need to hear if you have any appetite for Rimsky-Korsakov or Debussy or Aubert's glorious Tombeau de Chateaubriand or Nystroem's vividly beautiful Sinfonia del Mare. It's a diaphanous quilt of music well in touch with the mirror of the seas and the oceanic enigmas in which The Self is lost and fulfilled. Broadly you’re connected to the worlds of Ravel and Debussy. I thought of Frank Bridge in the ‘Falaise scherzo’. The final ‘Là-bas’ movement is cinematographic in its gestural magnificence and there's a splash of Respighi too. Sorry about all these names: it’s just to give you some crude idea of what to expect.

A superb collection well worth running to ground for the jaded yet open-minded. It's typically well documented by Lewis Foreman. I am only sorry to have taken so long to get to this treasure of a disc which, at this remove in time, is going to be difficult to source. At the time of writing, Dutton indicate that they have a small number left. If you see it secondhand do snap it up.

Rob Barnett