So much has the record industry moved on since the 1940s that it now seems absurd, inconceivable, that a singer of Regine Crespin's distinction should have had to wait 11 years berween her first concert and her first recording. But that is what happened. By the time she entered the studios to take part in the first recording of Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmélites, she was already the leading French soprano of her generation.
Distinguished approval of the Crespin voice, naturally enough, was not hard to come by in those days. 'I want a sunny voice, Mediterranean like yours, as bright as your hair,' Wieland Wagner told her when he insisted that she make her Bayreuth debut not as Sieglinde or EIsa, but as Kundry. The conductor was Hans Knappertsbusch, who declared, 'Frau Crespin, you are the best Kundry that I have ever directed.' That was in 1958, the year that the Carmélites was taped in Paris, and a few months after its Paris Opera French-language premiere.
Poulenc had composed the role of Mme Lidoine for a specific voice type (he identified each sister with one well-known role). He wanted the sound associated with Verdi's Desdemona, one of Crespin's favourite roles at the Paris Opera during the 1950s, and made a point of hearing her in the part, reacting decisively, 'That's the soprano I want.' To him she was 'Crespinette', and later they won a Grand Prix du Disque for the EMI recording of Poulenc's Stabat Mater, conducted by Prȇtre.
Crespin belongs to the great line of French singing. Her teacher at the Paris Conservatoire, Suzanne Cesbron-Viseur, had herself taken lessons from the mezzo Pauline Viardot. And she, in turn, was a sister of Malibran and daughter of Manuel Garcia, for whom Berlioz produced his editions of Gluck's Orphée and Alceste, and wanted for the role of Dido in Les Troyens. So when one listens to Crespin singing in Berlioz, or the aria from Gounod's Sapho (also composed for Viardot), one hears singing that draws its strength, directly, from a great French style and tradition.
One of the attractive characteristics of Crespin's voice is that, like Poulenc's personality, it has two distinct areas of chiaroscuro. Crespin's lower register has an almost oboe-like quality, which makes the emergence of her wonderful soft high notes from the same instrument seem so surprising. It was this ethereal sound that Poulenc needed for Mme Lidoine.
She attracted compliments from all manner of colleagues. The conductor Henry Lewis, at their first rehearsal for Carmen at the Met shouted from the orchestra pit, 'That's the sexiest lady I've ever seen!' Lotte Lehmann, who was the stage director for a memorable Rosenkavalier, also in New York, wrote, 'To work with that great artist was sheer joy from beginning to end...never did I hear the beginning of the trio in the last act sung so divinely, with the most tender of pianissimos, almost unearthly in its silvery beauty.'
Not long ago, Dame Felicity Lott, talking on BBC Radio 3, chose Crespin's recording of 'Ah! cher Monsieur, excusez-moi' from Christiné's Phi-Phi, describing it as an example of perfect singing. And so it is, Crespin's beautiful phrasing never exaggerating the possibilities of slight burlesque in this coquettish song, while her diction is brilliant, and that descending scale, right down to a low A, astonishing.
There was always an element of frustration about Crespin's recording career, especially for her admirers. Between 1959 and 1969, when she was at the peak of her form, she contributed to only three complete opera sets - the Decca/Solti Die Walküre (Sieglinde), Karajan's recording of the same opera (Brünnhilde), and Solti's Der Rosenkavalier (the Marschallin). Some might think it ungracious to carp since they are three classic sets. Yet here is the irony and frustration – Crespin was the first French prima donna to enjoy a truly international career since the Second World War, but no one recorded her in a complete role in French between the Carmélites in 1958 and the operas and operettas she recorded in the 1970s, when she had moved into the mezzo-soprano repertory.
The history of opera houses and their disenchantment with French singing during this period must be to blame. On live sets which came out on LP in the 1960s, however, there are recordings of her in the title-roles of Fauré's Pénélope, Gluck's Iphigenie en Tauride, Massenet's Marie-Magdeleine and Berlioz's La damnation de Faust.
Where recitals are concerned, Crespin was treated much better by the record companies. She made five recitals for Decca, four for EMI and one each for Vega and CBS. Between these we get a much richer glimpse of her versatility and range. The greatest of the discs is her unforgettable performance with Ernest Ansermet of Berlioz's Les nuits d'été with Ravel's Shéhérazade. This has quite rightly taken its place now in Decca's 'Legends' series. Crespin has written that this is the only one of her own records that she really likes; in her autobiography she reveals that Ansermet had her re-record the end of Le spectre de la rose eight times. What was wrong exactly, she wanted to know? He replied that each time there seemed to be a slight breath as she sang the word 'jalouser'. She explained that it was intended - it was her idea - and so he said, fine we'll use the first take.
Among her other recital recordings, there are very fine things on the Verdi disc, especially the two arias from Don Carlo, and a version of Wagner's Wesendonck-Lieder that will stand comparison with any. Best of all, though, are her French songs and opera arias. The two-disc set for Decca, 'Prima Donna in Paris', was the first to reveal the comic side of her art, and the best of this is on Grandi Voci now. Her singing of seven mélodies by Poulenc is exquisite; so is her reading of Debussy's Chansons de Bilitis (both on Decca).
On stage, Crespin was a powerful presence, her movements as fascinating and well-timed as her singing. She was always, I think, very nervous, but that only enriched the individuality of her acting and singing. Describing her Wagner in Sign-off for the Old Met (Duckworth: 1997), Paul Jackson wrote, 'Her voice with its creamy timbre and pliancy is the epitome of the feminine.' That seems just right.
Hers wasn't an easy voice to record; the Decca engineers referred to her as 'the French cannon'. But Crespin's famous high, soft notes and her expansive, darkly expressive low register seem to blend two essential elements in her personality - Mediterranean warmth and Parisian chic.
This article originally appeared in the December 1999 issue of Gramophone. To find out more about subscribing to Gramophone, please visit: gramophone.co.uk/subscribe