22 August 2013

CD REVIEW: Arthur Honegger – JEANNE D’ARC AU BÛCHER (S. Rohrer, K. Wierzba, L. Scherrer, K. Pessatti, J.-N. Briend, F. Le Roux; Hänssler CD 098.636)

Arthur Honegger: JEANNE D'ARC AU BÛCHER (Hänssler CD 098.636)

ARTHUR HONEGGER (1892 – 1955): Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher—S. Rohrer (Jeanne d’Arc – spoken rôle), E. Kisfaludy (Frère Dominique – spoken rôle), K. Wierzba (La Vierge – soprano), L. Scherrer (Marguérite – soprano), K. Pessatti (Cathérine – alto), J.-N. Briend (tenor), F. Le Roux (bass), M. Saniter (La Mère aux Tonneaux – soprano), S. Müller-Ruppert (L’Âne – baritone), J.-P. Ouellet (Bedfort – tenor), F. Schmitt-Bohn (Guillaume de Flavy – bass); Knabenchor collegium iuvenum Stuttgart; Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart; Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR; Helmuth Rilling [Recorded in Liederhalle Stuttgart, Beethovensaal, 2 – 3 April 2011, in conjunction with the 2011 Internationale Bachakademie Stuttgart; Hänssler CD 098.636; 2CD, 84:30]

Among the musical milestones being celebrated in 2013 is the bittersweet occasion of the retirement of Helmuth Rilling from leadership of the Oregon Bach Festival.  Born in Stuttgart, Maestro Rilling’s education recalls the paths taken by the great composers of the 17th and 18th Centuries, with periods of study in Germany and Italy allied with tuition under one of the great masters in his field, Leonard Bernstein.  Gifted from the beginning of his career with uncommon affinities for building and maintaining choruses, Maestro Rilling developed an early affection for the music of Bach that ultimately became the guiding impetus of his artistic life.  Having begun his affiliation with Bach-Collegium Stuttgart in 1965, he was the co-founder of the Oregon Bach Festival—justly acclaimed as one of the world’s best sources of thoughtfully-conceived, thrillingly-executed performances of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and his contemporaries—in 1970, his forty-three-year tenure there giving the United States not only a bastion of Bach performances of consistent integrity but also an invaluable setting for the commissioning and creation of new works.  In a sense, Arthur Honegger’s Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher might be regarded as a bridge between the legacy of Bach and the music of the later 20th and 21st Centuries: the basic structure of Honegger’s score pays homage to the Passion oratorios of Bach while also incorporating the full pallet of orchestral colors typical of post-Ravel Francophone music of the 20th Century.  Issuing a recording of a performance of Honegger’s Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher might seem an enigmatic way of honoring an eminent Bach conductor in the year of his retirement from what has perhaps been his most coveted post.  The insightful minds who manage Hänssler score a coup with this recording, however, revealing as much as in their tremendous catalogue of Bach recordings that Maestro Rilling’s artistry places him among the most thoughtful and musical conductors of recent years.

Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher has to its credit a number of qualities that should lend the score appeal to modern audiences: an impressively literary libretto by Paul Claudel, one of France’s most important 20th-Century poets and playwrights; a relatively brief running time of approximately eighty minutes; and an opportunity for an actress to recreate a part commissioned and first performed by the celebrated Ida Rubenstein.  Musically, Honegger’s score has much to recommend it, not least its characteristic rhythmic verve, the structure of every scene built upon a meticulously-maintained rhyme scheme as surely as in any of Bach’s works.  Honegger was a member of Les Six, and his music for Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher shares with the works of his colleagues the cosmopolitan but rugged rejection of Impressionism typified by the music of Debussy.  As in the works of Poulenc, the casual listener may be surprised to hear in Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher melodies of genuine beauty; indeed, in an unrepentantly modern work, any melodies at all.  More than many of his contemporaries, Honegger did not discard melody, regarding it as a passé means of pandering to an audience of Philistines: rather, he employed melody much as any of the great painters of the first half of the 20th Century used form to symbolize the increasing disorder of the world.  Thus, Honegger’s Joan of Arc endures the indignities of trial, conviction, and execution made all the more expressive of the crushingly destructive capacity of humanity by emerging from a sonic landscape dotted with lovely vistas.  Honegger enhanced the orchestration of Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher by including a part for the ondes Martenot, the strangely atmospheric electronic instrument superbly played in this performance by Christine Simonin-Fessard.  In fact, all of the players of the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR rise to the challenges of Honegger’s score, providing the compelling setting that is required if the score is to be as effective musically as it is theatrically.  All of the choristers involved—the boys of the Knabenchor Collegium iuvenum Stuttgart and the mixed choir of the Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart, an ensemble founded by Maestro Rilling in 1954—sing with consummate musicality and great dramatic power.  Maestro Rilling’s long experience in the music of Bach proves to be remarkably useful in Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher: he approaches this piece like any of Bach’s lesser-known works, not as a ‘problem piece’ to be finessed but simply as a score to be played.  Maestro Rilling identifies the structure of each scene and paces the performance so that climaxes, whether spoken or sung, occur organically.  The skill with which Maestro Rilling manages the choral and orchestral forces in this performance is not unexpected, but his mastery of Honegger’s unique idiom is an especially propitious discovery.

In the context of an audio recording, Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher faces a certain danger of seeming like a radio play with incidental music.  The success of a performance of the piece depends greatly upon the talent of the actress who performs the title rôle, and central to the histrionic strength of this performance is the Jeanne of Swiss actress Sylvie Rohrer.  No stranger to the concert hall, Ms. Rohrer has also taken part in performances of Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire, and she appeared in the film Antigone by Jürgen Flimm, a familiar presence in Europe’s opera houses.  Ms. Rohrer’s voicing of Claudel’s text is both poetic and fiery, her Jeanne dignified but defiant.  There is appealing ambiguity in her delivery of lines such as, ‘Une petite larme pour Jeanne! / Une petite prière pour Jeanne! / Une petite pensée pour Jeanne.’  The intensity of Jeanne’s sense of duty to her calling is tempered by a palpable weariness, and the suggestions of fear that Ms. Rohrer conveys make her Jeanne a credibly human figure, one whose actions are those of a conflicted young woman caught up in events of importance that she need not comprehend fully in order to pursue her destiny.  Hungarian actor Eörs Kisfaludy is also a frequent presence on European concert stages, and his reading of Frère Dominique in this performance ideally complements Ms. Rohrer’s Jeanne.  Though his French diction is not idiomatic and suffers slightly in direct comparison with Ms. Rohrer’s, Mr. Kisfaludy is nonetheless an alert, engaging participant in the drama.

Vocally, Honegger’s music makes demands as great as those in any opera.  Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher offers no arias, of course, but the score provides exciting opportunities for the vocalists.  Portraying la Mère aux Tonneaux and other parts, Martine Saniter sings characterfully, her phrasing consistently shaped by the natural flow of the text.  Also unfailingly musical and attuned to the nuances of multiple rôles are baritone Stefan Müller-Ruppert, tenor Jean-Pierre Ouellet, and bass Florian Schmitt-Bohn.

As la Vierge and Marguérite, sopranos Karen Wierzba and Letizia Scherrer sing beautifully, their voices responding excitingly to the challenges of Honegger’s music.  Born in Canada, Ms. Wierzba has thus far built a career that includes performances of some of the most challenging coloratura soprano rôles, notably Mozart’s Königin der Nacht in Die Zauberflöte and Richard Strauss’s Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos: nothing in Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher equals the bravura requirements of these parts, but the security of Ms. Wierzba’s upper register is a decided asset in this performance.  Security, both of intonation and placement of tone, is also a pleasing quality of Ms. Scherrer’s singing.  Having sung under Maestro Rilling’s baton in a lauded Carnegie Hall performance of Brahms’s Ein Deutsches Requiem, the Swiss soprano was familiar with the conductor’s method and follows his lead succinctly, the dark timbre of her voice contrasting effectively with Ms. Wierzba’s brighter tones.  Brazil-born contralto Kismara Pessatti also maintains a varied repertory: in addition to having sung Baroque music under Maestro Rilling’s direction, she also sang the rôles of the Rhinemaiden Floßhilde in Wagner’s Das Rheingold and Götterdämmerung and the Valkyrie Schwertleite in Die Walküre in the concert performances recorded for commercial release by PentaTone.  The involvement that Ms. Pessatti brings to her singing of Cathérine’s lines is audible, and her interactions with her colleagues reveal a grace lacking in the work of many young singers.

French tenor Jean-Noël Briend endures some murderously high tessitura in the music that he sings in Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher, and his performance is nothing short of a triumph.  One of the few tenors singing today whose ringing top C justifies the interpolation of the note in pieces like the Act Three finale in Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette and Alfredo’s cabaletta in Act Two of Verdi’s La traviata, Mr. Briend magnificently sustains a tessitura in Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher that is scarcely less high-flying than that for Tonio in Act One of Donizetti’s La fille du régiment.  Mr. Briend’s native French diction adds to the overwhelmingly positive impression made by his performance, of course, but the wondrous security of his upper register and virility of his voice are the qualities that raise the question of why the work of this talented singer is not more widely known.  The singing of bass François Le Roux is anything but unknown, his vocal versatility having been displayed in a large variety of parts.  Mr. Le Roux is more successful than almost any other bass of his generation at conveying mystery solely via manipulation of the natural colorations of his tone, and this skill contributes to moments of great tension in this performance.  The authority with which Mr. Le Roux intones the Latin texts—‘à la Bach,’ as stipulated by Honegger in the score—is aptly representative of the preeminence of the Church in the social order in which Joan functioned.  With this recording, Mr. Le Roux adds another intriguing performance to his multifaceted discography.

Performances of Honegger’s Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher are infrequent, and considering the drive to attract new, younger audiences to Classical Music this seems counterintuitive.  There is considerable expense inherent in assembling a cast of actors, singers, and musicians capable of executing Honegger’s music in a manner that honors the composer, but this recording confirms that Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher is a work that examines the too-familiar story of Joan of Arc, a figure about whose life and tribulations a provocative but almost certainly mostly apocryphal mythology has grown, from an utterly original perspective.  In his fusion of the Medieval mystery play with the oratorio traditions of Bach and musical techniques of his own 20th-Century musical milieu, Honegger likely got closer to the heart of Joan of Arc in Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher than any of the composers whose fantastical creations contribute to the legend rather than to any real understanding of the woman and her circumstances.  Looking beyond the primary colors of a musical portrait in order to explore the emotions that dwell in shadows has ever been a special achievement of Helmuth Rilling’s conducting, and under his gaze Joan of Arc shines across the centuries with rare hues.  Hänssler’s excellently-engineered, exceptionally-presented recording of Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher crowns the recorded career of one of the most quietly important conductors in recent memory and reminds the listener that the ardently-pursued ideal of ‘relevance’ in Classical Music lurks even in the least-heard music: dedicated musicians and attentive audiences need only to find it.