Honegger Vocal Works
Scarcely had I headed my ''Critics' Choice'' list of the past year with Ozawa's DG Joan of Arc at the stake than back in CD form comes this splendid 1974 recording, revealing not a trace of its age and rivalling the newcomer in many respects. The main difference between the two is that Ozawa's was taken at a public performance in a cathedral (recorded with exemplary fidelity by the engineers) and Baudo's was a spacious studio recording in which perspectives and balances could be arranged for maximum dramatic effect. And this it certainly delivers, the integration of sung and spoken sections (the two chief roles, those of Joan and Brother Dominic, are for non-singing actors) being calculated to a nicety, creating an evocative atmosphere at the outset as the two principals slowly emerge from a misty dirge; it then vividly depicts Joan's trial (with the swine as judge, the ass as recorder and the sheep as jury), the crazy card game by which her fate is sealed and the scenes of country rites, and building up an almost unbearable tension to the moment of her death—in which she is fortified only by the voices of her beloved Domremy bells and a vision of the Virgin. This is followed by the beatific coda, one of Honegger's loveliest and most moving pages. Nelly Borgeaud is a most convincing Joan, a simple country girl bewildered by the hatred she has aroused but conscious of her achievement in leading the king to Rheims; and Michel Favory is a gentler Brother Dominic than Ozawa's Georges Wilson: their closer microphone placing permits many subtle nuances of tone and stress (and, in Borgeaud's case, a wide dynamic range). Zdenek Jankovsky makes, appropriately enough, a more brutish Porcus than John Aler (excellent as he is), but Christianne Chateau is somewhat less radiant of voice than her counterpart, Francoise Pollet. Both chorus and children's chorus contribute valuably to Serge Baudo's well-conceived and well-paced reading, and the orchestra (chillingly supplemented by a banshee-like ondes martenot) is first-rate.
The one obvious minus point in this otherwise highly recommended version is that, unlike the DG issue, it is spread over two discs. The fact that the Christmas cantata is also included—an extraordinarily ingenious quodlibet of many carols, joyously proclaiming the Christmas message after the darkly imaginative initial ''De profundis''—is no real compensation, since despite its bright children's voices and the beautiful final minute of Honegger's coda this 1966 performance is marred by the chorus's uncertain intonation in the opening pages and by a dreadfully wobbly solo baritone.'