Ravier Liturgie pour un Dieu mort
For years it has been a mantra among musical Francophiles: ‘I expect it’s in the French Radio archives’, followed by a shrug of Gallic proportions. Now, at last, select objects from the treasure trove are being exhumed and put on display. The net has been cast wide, mixing the familiar and the novel, the old and the new, and – inevitably – the splendid with the not-so-splendid.
To get the latter over with first. Charles Ravier’s Liturgie pour un Dieu mort was broadcast in June 1981. The accompanying note calls it ‘one of the great moments in the history of radiophonic music’. Not being a specialist in that field, I can’t judge the truth of the claim, but the total experience did not overwhelm me. At just under an hour, the work, almost entirely at a mp dynamic or below, seemed to me to be wilfully unstructured and much too long. My notes contain the phrase ‘shivers of sound, plainsong with plonks’. Ravier wrote the vocal part for Guillemette Laurens’s ‘rough, animal, sensual’ voice, but hardly took advantage of this. Maybe I was in the wrong mood, and t hose of a more meditative disposition might like to explore further.
A disc entitled ‘Verlaine and his Musicians’ was an enterprising idea, and the not-so-splendid element is happily small, comprising some ham-handed accompanying of Bernard Kruysen from the pianist who is not Poulenc and, most blatantly, four of Debussy’s Ariettes oubliées mangled by Teresa Stich-Randall. Did anyone listen to these before including them? Her entry a bar early in ‘C’est l’extase’ is only the starter for a banquet of sentimentality – in all, an object lesson in how not to sing these songs. Here my notes contain the word ‘blancmange’. These disappointments aside, we are reminded what a lovely singer Kruysen was in French repertoire, possibly the most stylish of all non-French singers (I just about forgive Poulenc his false major chord at the end of ‘Le son du cor’), and with Suzanne Danco and Irma Kolassi we are treated to the real thing. Danco’s singing of Fauré’s ‘Prison’ is a high point, with Guido Agosti supplying telling but unobtrusive effects of piano colour. It’s good, too, to have seven songs by Charles Bordes who is not otherwise featured in the current British catalogue: this music repays repeated listening, even if the piano is rather too loud at times.
The remaining three discs all provide the authentic French experience in their different ways. Any soprano singing La Voix humaine has to contend with the 1959 version by Denise Duval, for whom Poulenc wrote the work. He ‘discovered’ her singing at the Folies Bergère, and she was never a truly operatic soprano with all that term entails. Jane Rhodes on the other hand was a notable Tosca and a formidable Salome, with which she made her Met début in 1962. Poulenc does stress that the singer must sound young, and here again Duval has the edge, recording the work in her mid-thirties against Rhodes’s mid-forties. But once all that has been said, this is an immensely powerful reading, and given strong, colourful orchestral support. The dog episode is omitted.
Paul Derenne and Hugues Cuénod were the two tenors in the vocal ensemble directed by Nadia Boulanger that brought Monteverdi’s madrigals into the mainstream repertoire. Neither had a great voice, nor made any pretence of having one. But, like Pierre Bernac, what they lacked in vocal prowess they made up for in artistry. Cuénod gives us a mixed bag from his enormous repertory, ranging from Machaut and Anon up to Brahms and Duparc. Hearing him sing Brahms’s ‘Therese’ is a slightly curious experience – as though one of the cello sonatas were being played on a viola da gamba – and perhaps Cuénod’s Duparc would not be a first choice for similar reasons. There are a few technical problems, too, notably occasional flat intonation. But I particularly relished his Dowland, in delicious, 1930s English pronunciation (‘shall’ comes out as ‘shell’), and his diction and phrasing in the Fauré songs are also impeccable.
Derenne, sticking to the French repertoire, achieves an even higher success rate. The close recording allows us to admire the clarity and evenness of his production, as well as the sheer beauty of his tone. The opening ‘Au rossignol’ is a miracle of control, and an lesson at the other end of the scale from Stich-Randall’s Debussy. There’s variety, too, as in the wonderfully nervous diction he adopts for Ravel’s fusspot cricket in Histoires naturelles. Sauguet was no piano virtuoso, but his playing is of course musical to the nth degree, and his Six Songs on Symbolist Poets display the sensitivity and humour typical of this underrated composer. All in all, the liberation of the INA archives is to be warmly welcomed.