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Pierne Assise SOCD392

Gabriel PIERNÉ (1863-1937)
Saint François d'Assise (1909/11) [94:06]
L’An Mil (1897) [40:14]
RTF Choirs
RTF National Orchestra/René Alix
Paris Radio Symphonic Orchestra/Jean Fournet (L’An Mil)
rec. live, 30 March 1953; 11 February 1964 (L’An Mil), Paris
SOLSTICE SOCD392/3 [62:54 + 71:36]

The background as to how this new release from the French label Solstice came about is intriguing. Yvette Carbou, the proprietor, was made aware of a performance of Gabriel Pierné’s oratorio Saint François d'Assise posted on Youtube. The performance in question, broadcast on Dutch Radio, dated from October 1981. It harnessed a local cast, and was conducted by Jean Fournet. As no known commercial recording of the work had ever been made, and considering its rarity, Carbou thought it warranted release on her label. Approaches to Dutch Radio drew a blank as the recording was lost. Never one to give up, she turned her attention to the National Audiovisual Institute, who found a recording of the work from 1953 “preserved on acetates and in good condition”. However, there was one drawback. There were several sections in Part 2 missing, most notably the 1st scene, Les Stigmates, and later some cuts to Le Cantique du Soleil. Despite this, the wise decision was made, considering the value and importance of this aural document, to release it.

Pierné was at his peak as a composer when he penned St. François d’Assise between 1909 and 1911. The work, to a libretto by Gabriel Nigond, was premiered in Paris on 24 March 1912 at the Théâtre Du Châtelet. Such an ambitious project was bolstered by the fact that Pierné had a first-rate orchestra at his disposal, the Concerts Colonne, of which he had become chief conductor in 1910. The work is an adaptation of a late 14th century hagiographical collection I Fioretti di san Francesco (The Little Flowers of Saint Francis). The prologue focuses on the saint's youth up to his revelation, with the following two parts dealing with his teachings and his ascension.  The composer’s teachers had included César Franck, who seems to be an abiding influence throughout the work both in the dense polyphonic scoring and the employment of a cyclical structure which provides a powerful unifying device.

There are moments of radiant intimacy, where the diaphanous scoring is revealed to perfection. One such is the second section of Part 1, titled Soeur Claire. A solo flute is pitched against the gentle strings gossamer lines. It almost mimics the intimacy of chamber music. Berthe Monmart, Soeur Claire, is exquisite in her fervent delivery of the text. René Alix strikes a perfect balance, elegantly sculpting the orchestral accompaniment around the solo lines. For me, this is the most beautiful section of the work. I’m not at all disappointed with the contributions of the stellar vocal soloists, and the chorus offer sensitive singing, with their choral diction well captured. René Alix proves a sensitive conductor who responds instinctively to every nuance and inflection.

L’An Mil (The Year 1000), a three-part symphonic poem, is an earlier work dating from 1897, and it received its premiere a year later under the baton of Édouard Colonne. The work, for orchestra and chorus, evokes “the anxieties of the Christian world on the eve of the millenium: fear, hysterical madness and devotion”. The three sections are entitled Miserere Mei, Fête des fous et de l’ane and Te Deum. In common with the oratorio, hints of cyclical form run its course. The Miserere is soused in dark tortuous harmonies, whilst the Te Deum is overflowing with contrapuntal devices. Jean Fournet directs an inspired reading, with the choral contributions nicely focused and pleasantly profiled.

The audio quality is surprisingly very good for both works, considering the age and provenance of the recordings. The excellent booklet notes, in French and English, are supplied by Cyril Bongers, a Pierné specialist. Full texts and translations of both works are provided. I’m pleased that the accompanying booklet includes the complete libretto of St. François d’Assise and L’An Mil, with the missing sections of the former printed in grey. Announcements and applause are retained, and the odd cough from the audience can be detected in the quieter moments. All told, the oratorio is an exciting discovery and worthy of your respect, interest and investigation.

Stephen Greenbank

Participating soloists in Saint François d'Assise
Jean Giraudeau (Saint François)
Lucien Lovano (Le Lépreux)
Bernard Demigny (Frère León)
Raymond Amade (Tenor solo)
Berthe Monmart (Soeur Claire)
Jeanne De Faria (La Pauvreté)
Freda Betti (Lucia)

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