Rachmaninov 24 Preludes
Whoever may have it in mind to improve upon previous attempts to chart a way through the history of recorded vocal art will find valuable material here for their chapter on the French lyric tenor. The recordings come from a time when the national school flourished, its features well defined, its contribution distinctive and distinguished. Where the Italians brought passion, the French brought elegance, and in this respect the lyric tenors typified the school as a whole. The voices were clean-cut, kept light and free of the throat. The singers were trained, often more thoroughly than Italians, in the traditional accomplishments; in style they made much of nuance and a natural interplay between notes and words. Unless they went abroad to the great international houses, they sang practically everything in their native language, so that music, whether German, Italian or even Russian, was fitted to suit the French tongue and the French idea of singing and song. The future historian will draw on wider resources in tracing subsequent developments, but these two new issues provide ample material for making a start on the first 25 years.
The key figure is Edmond Clement. With their previous volume (8/95) containing the 1905 Odeons and later Victor recordings, Romophone can now offer a unique edition of a tenor whose career ran from the last years of the 19th century (when he was censured by G B Shaw for rowdyism) to shortly before his death in 1928 at the age of 60. The four songs recorded in 1925 show that his voice and production (as Max de Schauensee reported) were scarcely affected by age; and his last record of all (appropriately, of Faure’s ‘Les adieux’) catches with wonderful naturalness the slim, supple tones of earlier years when he was the most admired, and the highest paid, member of the Opera-Comique.
A prime example of his art is the air from La dame blanche, the opening phrases ideally graceful, the runs articulated with the clarity and evenness of McCormack in ‘Il mio tesoro’. McCormack comes to mind in the soft high notes of Berlioz’s ‘Absence’ and in the solos from Lakme where he also matches the poise of Tito Schipa. As such comparisons must suggest, Clement is himself a touchstone, a setter of standards and a reference-point for others of his kind.
These include each of the remaining tenors heard on these discs. Leon David was Clement’s contemporary and rival; Louis Cazette (one of the three on Marston’s set) for a brief while the nearest to being his successor; Charles Friant was an individualist but still part of the school; and Jean Marny represents it at a more workaday level, less polished but still stylish and very French.
David, whose records are (I believe) collected here for the first time complete, is worth hearing on several counts: he takes the phrase in Don Jose’s Flower song rising to the soft B flat in a way that shows just what Bizet would have had in mind, his opening of ‘Ah! fuyez, douce image’ in Manon is magically indrawn, and the cavatina from Il barbiere di Siviglia (or Le barbier de Seville) has the fluency and tastefulness of a singer schooled in the best traditions. Cazette, he of the youthful glory and tragically early death, was a later product of the same school. All that remains of him is here in these 11 items, but they are sufficient for us to appreciate his quality, with the solo from Griselidis confirmed as one of the most attractive tenor recordings of all. Friant, the great Werther of his time (and perhaps of any other), is heard in some early discs, striking in the fervour of their emotion as well as the fine exercise of chiaroscuro: a delightful rarity is the song
Add to these the names and records of Albert Vaguet and David Devries and you have a very fair conspectus of the voice, the school and the period. In both issues the transfers are fine, and both are presented with informative and well-illustrated booklets – concerning which the only regret is that space could not have been found for a brief note on the texts and contexts of the rarer operatic excerpts.