La Grande Guerre en Marseillaises
Jean-Philippe Lafont (baritone)
Cyrille Lehn (piano)
rec. Verdun Memorial Auditorium, April/June 2016
HORTUS 140 [68.05]

This is a really odd disc. It combines a number of settings of the French national anthem Le Marseillaise with words by various poets and arrangements by miscellaneous hands with other readings of poetry regarding the First World War and piano improvisations on various French patriotic songs, ending with a German ‘Worker’s Marseillaise’ written in 1864 during the period of the Second Napoleonic Empire and thus removed by over fifty years from the remainder of the music and poetry on the disc. Now, the Marseillaise is one of the very best of national anthems (although that is not saying much in the presence of a plethora of generally dismal patriotic effusions) but even so there seems to be a limit to how many times the same music can be recycled on the same disc. The words are varied to reflect the changing situations in the progress of the War to its conclusion, but the order in which the various versions are presented does not follow the historical progress of the conflict, with the result that the 1919 verses celebrating victory are followed immediately by another version and a poem on the subject of Verdun written three years earlier.

Indeed the order of the items on the disc seems to have been altered at a relatively late stage, since the texts and translations which are provided in the very substantial booklet (56 pages) bear no correspondence whatsoever to the order in which they are presented to us. This causes considerable annoyance as the listener has to flick hurriedly backwards and forwards; it might have helped if the track listing had at the very least indicated where in the booklet the text is to be found. The disc is clearly intended exclusively for Francophone listeners, since there is no translation whatsoever into any other language – except perversely for the final item in German, which is deprived in its own turn of a French translation. Nor does the poetry itself seem to have much merit; I am not fluent in French, but much of the verbiage seems to me to consist of patriotic effusions which hardly begin to do justice to the real horror of the Western Front.

Nor does the presentation show much in the way of sympathy for the unfortunate cannon-fodder whom this music and poetry was presumably intended to inspire. The booklet and CD cover are illustrated by cartoons originally designed for postcards by André Hellé which show Tintin-like caricatures waving French flags and charging forward in a manner that is very far removed indeed from the reality of trench warfare. The result is simply grotesque, I might even say offensive.

The music, which does include some original song material by composers utterly unmemorable, is sung by Jean-Philippe Lafont who might some twenty years ago have produced the necessary heroic stance to make some of these settings effective. He may indeed still be as “rabelaisian” as the booklet claims, but his delivery is generally far too polite, trying to find subtlety where none exists, and no longer ideally steady of either rhythm or vocal production either. Cyrille Lehn’s short improvisations are effective, but his accompaniments (sometimes clearly reductions of arrangements designed for larger forces) are too backwardly placed in the recording balance, with the result that the sometimes piquant touches – the only thing that distinguishes one arrangement from another – are relegated to the background.

The French note on the back of the disc states “L’interprétation de ces partitions offre au public, aux professeurs, aux cherchers, une matière sonore totalement inédite et passionnante.” I will take their word for it, but being neither a professor nor a researcher I cannot think that this disc could be seen as any sort of tribute to the dead of the Great War beyond that of a simple historical document – and not a very appropriate one at that. There are twenty-one separate tracks ranging from 20 seconds to over seven minutes in length, but I cannot think it worthwhile to list them individually.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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