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The Vocal Retrospective
October 2021

Ralph Moore Mike Parr

A series of monthly musings by two members of the MusicWeb International review team who share a deep fascination with opera and vocal music in general. Each month we shall take a glance back at something of interest that appeared on commercial CD from the accumulated history of classical vocal recordings.

Les Introuvables du Chant Français Volume 2

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This month we continue looking back into the distant past of French singing as we explore the second volume of Les Introuvables du Chant Français that was released by EMI in 2004. The word Introuvables corresponds to the English phrase “difficult to find” or seek out. EMI would semi-regularly release large boxed sets of rare historical recordings under this heading during the late LP era and well into the days of CDs. Most of these recordings have not yet made it into the era of digital downloading or streaming, but it is hoped that Warner will get around to them before too much time has passed. The set we look at this month was issued on eight CDs divided into two volumes of four CDs each with extensive notes. Many of the tracks had been cleaned up and issued on CD for the first time with this release.

CD 5: Jules Massenet
Ralph: Just the coruscating string arpeggios and the noble horn rejoinders of the Massenet aria which opens volume 2 of this collection are enough to make my heart leap, especially when we then hear the voice of one of the greatest half-dozen basses ever - and certainly the greatest French bass alongside Pol Plançon – Marcel Journet, tearing into Athanaël’s “Voilà donc la terrible cité”. He was a true bass with resonant low notes but also all the ease of a baritone on top notes (compare him with Ettore Bastianini, in that regard, who had the reverse gift of being a baritone with bass low notes – indeed, he began as a bass and moved up.)

Fanny Heldy’s account of Thaïs’ “Dis-moi que je suis belle” just consolidates my delight; I never tire of pointing out how developed the lower register of these “old school” singers was, in combination with such purity and richness of tone: you have only to listen to her B-flats on “belle” and “éternellement” at 1:10 and1:38 respectively and the top B at 2:30 to know that you are listening to a voice of the highest quality.

Mike:   Suzanne Cesbron-Viseur in shimmering voice sings Fanny’s Act four aria from Sapho. The music of late Massenet can sound rather boring but when it is illuminated by voice and expression as it is here, it can sound like veritable genius.

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Suzanne Cesbron-Viseur in Guillaume Tell

Ralph: A lighter, prettier soprano, more of the kind we now associate with being French in sound, is to be heard in Yvonne Brothier’s delicate singing of Nina’s aria from Chérubin, contrasting strongly with contralto Marie Delna in “Les larmes que l’on ne pleure pas” from Werther, whereas you could be forgiven for thinking that soprano Madeleine Sibille, in the aria from Thérèse was also a true contralto, her low notes are so trenchant. (Delna is wrongly billed as a soprano here; it surprises me how often the wrong attribution of voice-type is made in the listings on this set.)

Mike:  Heroic tenor Paul Franz returns (wrongly attributed as a baritone) for the big aria from Le Cid.  Aside from being impressive as singing, I am impressed at the early (1919) attempt to record the full orchestra and chorus in this scene. The limitations of the recording through a horn ensure that it doesn’t come off well but even today, when tenors record this aria, the engineers will leave out the solo for St James and all of the choral contributions.

Ralph: Volume 1 gave only one minor aria to the great Germaine Cernay, so I was pleased to see she here sings Chimène’s big aria from Le Cid and Germaine Martinelli makes another appearance in a beautifully sung rarity from Massenet’s now-neglected oratorio Marie-Magdeleine.

Mike:  Arthur Endrèze stands out with his truly beautiful account of Scindia’s Act Four aria from le roi de Lahore. This is an example of intelligent use of vibrato to enhance the music rather than detracting from it as an uncontrolled vibrato does.

Ralph:  The clutch of great French tenors here makes us realise what has been lost in the French tradition of singing: Clément, David, Friant, Maison, Cazette, van Dyck and, above all, Vezzani – but, sadly, no Thill – although his deserved fame and popularity mean that his recordings will not be considered “introuvables”. Vezzani always stands out as having a much more virile, incisive sound than his more refined and elegant contemporaries, even in such a short extract as the aria from La Navarraise – just one and a half minutes. It is tempting to ascribe his more Italianate, spinto sound to his origins in Corsica.

Mike:  Jean-Emile Vanni-Marcoux returns with the death scene from Don Quichotte, complete with an un-named Dulcinée and Sancho Panza. His vocal resources were more limited by 1934 but he does so much with them. He finds just the right amount of pathos and adds an attention to textual nuance that bring this music to life in a way that I have never encountered before. He does the same thing to an aria from Massenet’s rather dull music for the posthumously produced Cléopâtre, making it sound more impressive than it really is.

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Vanni-Marcoux as Don Quichotte

Ralph: I was surprised to see Amelita Galli-Curci’s name here; she sings the coloratura display aria from Don César de Bazan, another opera completely unknown to me, which sounds like something from Meyerbeer’s Dinorah given a Hispanic flavour.

Mike:  This aria was recorded several times during the golden age of opera; Nellie Melba recorded it twice. One would be hard-pressed to find it in the recent Naxos recording of the complete opera (review), which was Massenet’s first commission by the opéra-comique in 1872. In the 1890’s Massenet grabbed a melody from the prelude to Act Three and turned it into this frothed-meringue solo piece that was the only reason the name of the opera survived for nearly 148 years.

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CD 6: L’opéra-comique après Carmen
Ralph: This CD generally contains lighter items but no means everything here is of that character; Les contes d’Hoffmann, for example, has always hovered between opéra comique and Grand Opera. I’m afraid that the combination of Emma Luart’s Minnie Mouse voice and Gaston Micheletti’s tremolo does little to suggest that the opera belongs in the latter category

Mike: While Luart and Micheletti are not the personification of grand opera voices, their account of the Antonia –Hoffmann duet is the personification of airy elegance à la française despite some pitch trouble on the climactic note for both of them. In the preceding track, a singer previously unknown to me, Jules Baldous gives the most fabulously vivid account of Coppélius’ aria for the hilariously named Perfectaphone recording company (from 1928).

Ralph: Miguel Villabella sings Hoffmann’s aria in grand style. Germaine Cernay once more takes the palm with her accounts of two diverse arias and is wrongly described as “soprano”. André d’Arkor sings a rather charmless version of that most charming of French arias “Vainement, ma bien-aimée” (Lalo’s le roi d’Ys), only twice resorting to a rather applied falsetto and otherwise singing straight through it in a mezza voce. Sometimes, as Callas was always reminding us, a nice voice isn’t enough.

Mike: Our old friend from Volume One, Suzanne Balguerie abandons Gluck to deliver a luminous account of a scene from Dukas’ Arianne et Barbe-Bleu.  She must have been a very valuable artist on the French opera scene during those years. Germaine Cernay simply blows me away with her superbly communicative account of Genviève’s solo from Pelléas et Mélisande.

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Suzanne Balguerie

Ralph: I recently discovered Rabaud’s Mârouf when reviewing Robert Massard’s recording of it in my second survey of his discography and the two highlights here of arias for tenor and soprano rather than the lead baritone, are very neatly and idiomatically sung by José de Trevi and Marthe Nespoulos .

Mike: It is really interesting to hear Fanny Heldy in Concepción’s scene from Ravel’s l’heure espagnol. These days it is sung by juicy-voiced mezzos but once it was once the property of lyric sopranos like Heldy.  Her sound is reminiscent of the wonderful Suzanne Danco in Ansemet’s complete Decca recording of the work - quite possibly the last time that a light soprano sang the role.

Ralph: Gabrielle Ritter-Ciampi sings a full-voiced, Italianate – well, her father was an Italian tenor - but nuanced “Depuis le jour”. The final three numbers on the disc are from Delibe’s Lakmé and remind us of true French singing style, with Villabella once more singing exquisitely. The “Flower Duet” is taken rather briskly for modern tastes but here is Cernay again along with Solange Delmas. Yvonne Gall sings Lakme’s final aria with excellent legato.

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Gabrielle Ritter-Ciampi in Gounod’s Faust

CD 7: En traduction
Ralph: CD 7 contains either arias that were translated into French from the original languages by Verdi, Puccini, Wagner, Tchaikovsky et al, or French arias that were sung by non-French speaking singers.

Mike: This CD was in many ways the most fascinating one for me.  For example, one of the happiest finds was Wolfram’s contribution to the song contest from Tannhäuser, beautifully sung by Arthur Endrèze. This marks the only time I have heard music from the Paris Tannhäuser sung in the Nuitter translation made for those first performances in 1861. I hope someday that a conductor like Marc Minkowski will exhume the complete work for a recording as he did for his recording of Le vaisseau fantôme a few years back.

Ralph: I sampled Conchita Supervia’s Carmen first because I can never decide whether I really like her fast, rattling vibrato; I think I do even if it isn’t “legitimate” – and her characterisation and low notes are splendid. Certainly, this “Chanson bohème” with prominent castanets is thrillingly fast and furious.

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Conchita Supervia

Mike: I loved Supervia’s energy and vivaciousness but I sometimes wonder if her legendary status among record collectors was due to her tragically young death as it was to her skills as a performer. Certainly she sounds to me like a shooting star that was going to burn out prematurely in any case. Another really wonderful track is Mary Garden’s aria from Alfano’s Resurrezione.  Garden sings the Act Two aria superbly even if it does sound more refined in French; she is vocally miles ahead of the soprano who sang it in the recent Dynamic recording of the complete opera.

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Mary Garden as Chrysis in Erlanger’s Aphrodite

Ralph: Then, hopping about instead of listening chronologically, I went to Vezzani’s “Di quella pira” in French, and he, too, provides thrills with unbelievably forceful – if perhaps very slightly questionable, from the point of view of intonation – top Cs.

Mike: Sigrid Onegin really impressed me with her powerful recording of Fidès Act Four aria from Le prophète. This is possibly the most difficult aria in the mezzo repertoire and it has to be stated that Onegin comes a very close second to Marilyn Horne’s two masterful recordings of the aria. I believe that I have heard another recording she made of this aria sung in German.

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Sigrid Onegin in Le prophète

Ralph:  I am not sure about Claudine Boons’ Aida; she hasn’t the weight of voice and it just sounds all wrong and I feel similarly about Germaine Martinelli’s “Liebestod”.

Mike: Another interesting track for me was the Italian Giuseppe Lugo’s account of “Che gelida manina”. It’s an oddity to have an Italian tenor singing his big bread-and-butter aria in French. Still despite his voice not being large, I thought his performance quite lovely and that his name should be better remembered than it is.

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Giuseppe Lugo in Boito’s Mefistofele

Ralph: Skipping on to Germaine Lubin’s Brünnhilde and we hear a world-class Wagnerian; she swoops a bit but has a big, pure generous tone. It is a surprise to hear her turn her dramatic soprano to Tosca but it works, even if she is a touch marmoreal. Her final floated B-flat and pianissimo conclusion to the aria are lovely.  Combine Lubin’s Wagner with Paul Franz’s Siegfried, and Marcel Journet’s marvellously sung "Les adieux de Wotan", where he sounds like a young Hans Hotter but with French elegance, seamless legato and a true actor's command of the text, and you are hearing the Gallic Ring at its best. (There is a Romophone issue, Wagner en français which I have reviewed on Amazon, if you can find it affordably.)

Mike: André Pernet returns again with the clock scene from Boris Godunov. His slightly nasal tone brings a spooky-sounding touch to the troubled Tsar. This is enough to whet one’s appetite for his complete recording of the role in a 1947 performance from Geneva under Ansermet’s baton, a recording that was released by Walhall a few years ago.

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André Pernet as Boris Godunov

Ralph: I was also intrigued to hear that fine tenor Joseph Rogatchewsky sing the aria from Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame – and it is not a disappointment; he has all the pathos, plangency and steadiness the aria requires.

Mike: I was struck by that recording, too, but mainly because the only time I have encountered Rogatchewsky was in the complete 1929 Manon with Germaine Féraldy. It occurred to me that asking Rogatchewsky to sing German was like asking Alfredo Kraus to take on the same role.

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Jospeh Rogatchewsky as Lohengrin

Ralph: Frida Leider collaborates with Barbirolli in a typically stately and dignified account of an aria from Gluck’s Armide.

Mike:  Wagnerian singer Olive Fremstad sang the Premiere of Gluck’s Armide at the Metropolitan Opera in 1910. She is represented here not in Gluck’s role but in Mignon’s sad little aria where her powerful voice overwhelms the music despite the lovely round tones she possessed.

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Olive Fremstad as Isolde

CD 8:  La muse légère
Ralph: This CD is filled with much lighter, shorter songs starting with Offenbach’s operettas, with which, apart from the opening number from Les contes d’Hoffmann, I am wholly unfamiliar and to be honest don’t that much like, so I am relying on Mike to provide the background knowledge, expertise and judgement. A lot of it is music hall stuff which can be sung by non-operatic and comic voices - which will easily be heard by a listen to the first half a dozen tracks.

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Bourvil

Mike:  The final CD opens perfectly with Frantz’s little aria from Les contes d’Hoffmann as sung by comic actor and vaudeville performer Bourvil (born André Robert Raimbourg). He was mostly known for acting in films during the 1960’s but in 1948 he was chosen to be part of André Cluytens’ first complete recording of Hoffmann. He possesses very little voice but he is convincing and bags of fun nonetheless. There are even some dance steps included for a sense of theatrical realism.

Ralph: There is a certain charm to Reynaldo’s Hahn’s grainy crooning and his verbal dexterity – but we’re in a different genre here and I concede my own capability of assessing it.

Mike: Hearing Reynaldo Hahn’s vocal recordings will always prompt me to think of a skilled party performer rather than someone with a great voice per se. He is very expressive and quite lively at times and of course one can’t ever quite forget what a colourful life this composer lived. It is quite amazing that he received so much opportunity to make voice recordings, the total output of which fills three CDs quite generously on the Romophone label.

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Reynaldo Hahn

Ralph: I find Nanon Vallin’s rendering of Rameau’s tiny “Tambourin” a welcome diversion from that which surrounds it!

Mike: Ninon Vallin appears again in a very pretty duet from Lecocq’s La fille de Madame Angot along with an unknown to me soprano, Madeleine Sibille. Another unknown singer, Livine Mertens surprises me with her effervescent account of the Sabre song from La grande Duchesse de Gérolstein.

Ralph: To be honest, I am rather bemused by the inclusion of this material in the set. I know its jolly stuff but I am a po-faced lover of opere serie and find much of it negligible, if not trivial.

Mike: I find much that is interesting to hear, if not necessarily to buy on this last CD. Claude Terasse’s “Valse des péchés” is quite interesting because I have only ever heard it done as an instrumental piece. Who knew that it was actually a duet from an operetta? I will end my comments with pointing out a favourite piece of lighter music shows up in Track 22. The scene for King Ouf from Chabrier’s L’Etoile that forms the Act One finale performed with murderous glee by René Hérent and the full chorus.

Les Introuvables du Chant Français 
EMI 5858282 8 CDs [648:33]

This CD set is no longer available for purchase but can be found on the resale market, sometimes at a reasonable price. It is not currently available for either streaming or downloading. Many of the individual tracks can be located via a YouTube search, as most of them are no longer in copyright.

Tracklist of Volume Two

 



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