Régine Crespin: A Tribute
To mark the 10th anniversary of Régine Crespin’s death, Warner Classics has gathered together her principal operatic and song recitals, recorded for EMI, Decca and Vega between 1958 and 1967, along with substantial extracts from a selection of her complete opera recordings, some of them less readily available nowadays than others. The set includes her benchmark 1963 performances of Shéhérazade and Les nuits d’été – Crespin’s favourite among her own recordings – though there’s nothing from her Decca Rosenkavalier and Walküre with Solti, or her DG Walküre with Karajan. She can, however, be heard in an extract from Claude Bolling’s soundtrack for the 1974 film Dites-le avec des fleurs, and there are a couple of undated ‘private recordings’ of her in cabaret. It’s a marvellous survey of a great career, though her discography is not without its controversies.
Crespin’s own comments that she was frequently uneasy in the studio may surprise many, given the consistent quality of her singing on disc. More pertinent here, perhaps, is the fact that her voice was initially deemed difficult to record. British engineers nicknamed her ‘the French cannon’ on account of the sheer immensity of sound she could produce at full volume, and the first of her recitals, ‘Airs d’opéras’, in mono, for EMI in 1958, conveys the beauty of her singing but little of its power. Pierre Dervaux’s famous performance of Dialogues des Carmélites, again in mono and released the same year, was the first recording to successfully capture the splendour of her voice, but it was only, perhaps, with her 1961 Wagner recital, again for EMI but now in stereo, that the subtlety of her singing and her remarkable way with dynamics over a vast range could be fully appreciated, above all in a performance of the Wesendonck-Lieder that still ranks among the finest on disc.
She also recorded at a time when there were elements of conservatism in regard to choice of repertory. Despite her pre-eminence in Berlioz, EMI was unwilling to let her tackle Les Troyens complete, opting instead for a 1965 two-disc set of ‘great scenes’, in which she plays both Cassandre and Didon, the former uncharacteristically detached, the latter wonderfully restrained and noble. Her Tosca, strikingly vulnerable and anything but a conventional fire-breather, was recorded in French in 1960, meanwhile, and consequently never received the wide circulation it deserved.
The programming for her recitals, too, could, on occasion, be relatively conventional, though her singing was always magnificent. In ‘Italian Operatic Arias’, for Decca in 1963, she gives Desdemona real dignity and turns Santuzza into a figure of unusually tragic eloquence. The more uneven ‘Verdi Arias’, for EMI in 1965, finds her battling Georges Prêtre’s slowish speeds in Lady Macbeth’s Sleepwalking scene, though she really impresses as both Elisabetta and Eboli in Don Carlo. ‘Régine Crespin chante l’opéra français’, from 1961 and her sole album for Vega, is a real stunner, however. The programme ranges adventurously over both the relatively familiar (Charlotte’s Letter scene from Werther) and the little known. ‘Ô ma lyre immortelle’ from Gounod’s Sapho is tremendous in its control and pathos, and she’s simply staggering in ‘Salut, splendeur du jour’ from Reyer’s Sigurd.
Crespin also maintained that she preferred song recitals to operatic roles, and two albums allow us to hear her in mixed programmes of Lieder and mélodies. A brooding, introverted performance of Schumann’s Op 39 Liederkreis and some exquisite Fauré form the basis of the first, for EMI in 1966. A year later for Decca, there was more Schumann – Gedichte der Königin Maria Stuart, very intense – together with Wolf, Debussy’s Chansons de Bilitis (sexy, if a bit mature-sounding) and a Poulenc group, in which her wit is fierce and her way with French matchless.
The same humour and verbal dexterity also characterised her later recordings of Offenbach. Her sweet-natured Périchole contrasts with Métella’s brazen knowingness in La vie parisienne: both performances date from 1976 and are conducted by Alain Lombard. One admires the cool self-assurance of her 1974 Carmen, again with Lombard, though the real treat among the operatic highlights included here is her Salomé in Prêtre’s 1963 recording of Massenet’s Hérodiade: mystic eroticism has rarely been more ecstatically or provocatively voiced. The ‘private’ cabaret songs, receiving their first release, meanwhile, are deliciously camp and simply priceless.