11 July 2014

CD REVIEW: Maurice Emmanuel – SALAMINE (F. Wend, B. Demigny, J. Giraudeau, J. Peyron, A. Vessières, L. Lovano; Solstice SOCD 301)

CD REVIEW: Maurice Emmanuel - SALAMINE (Solstice SOCD 301)

MAURICE EMMANUEL (1862 – 1938): Salamine—Flore Wend (la reine Atossa), Bernard Demigny (le Messager), Jean Giraudeau (Xerxès), Joseph Peyron (un dignitaire de la Cour), André Vessières (l’ombre de Darius), Lucien Lovano (le Coryphée); Orchestre radio-symphonique et Chœurs de la RTF; Tony Aubin, conductor [Recorded for radio broadcast in Paris, France, 22 March 1958; Disques FY et du Solstice, SOCD 301; 1CD, 72:03; Available solely from Disques FY et du Solstice]

​Europe in the 1920s was a continent gradually retreating from the edge of annihilation. Cataclysmic ‘total war’ on an unprecedented scale left disfiguring scars on decimated populations, physical landscapes, and philosophical foundations from the windy shores of Britain to the primordial forests of the Balkans. The map was redrawn, and the Hapsburg dynasty that had dominated swaths of the continent for centuries was toppled: modern Europe was born, but it was one of the costliest births in human history. Art, too, was forced by calamity to crawl towards reinvention, to replace the pretty complacencies of fin-de-siècle perspectives with new attitudes forged by the destructive realities of lives touched by oblivion. From this renaissance of altered creativity was born Maurice Emmanuel’s stark tragédie lyrique Salamine. Based upon a recounting of the ancient Battle of Salamis by the composer’s beloved Aeschylus, the opera inhabits a sonic world far more reminiscent of the music of Emmanuel’s pupils Messiaen and Dutilleux than that of his teachers Delibes and Franck. Intense, hypnotic, strange, and more universal than traditionally Gallic, Salamine is a score that boils with musical invention and the voices of threatened humanity. Its magnitude in the recovery of European Art in the decade following World War I notwithstanding, it is a captivating work begging to be heard. A century after the start of the Great War, the superlative efforts of Disques FY et du Solstice—exemplified by the work of producer Yvette Carbou—provide Salamine the opportunity to reclaim its place in the narrative of the reconstruction of European Art.

The battle between the Greeks and Persians of antiquity waged in the waters surrounding the Aegean island of Salamis in 480 BC is a critically-important event unknown in the Twenty-First Century to all but the most attentive students of history. A turning point in the Greco-Persian conflicts of the Fifth Century BC, the Greek victory over the vastly superior numbers of the invading armies of Xerxes the Great—familiar to opera lovers as the tree-hugging protagonist of Händel’s Serse—began the series of decisive military actions that halted Persian conquest of the Greek mainland. To Aeschylus, whose epic play The Persians is one of the most noteworthy first-hand accounts of any episode in Greek history, the routing of the Persian navy at Salamis was one of the truly defining events of his age. From the perspective of history, it is a tremendously significant step in the development of modern civilization. This significance would have been especially apparent to Emmanuel, who was renowned for his scholarship on Greek musical modes, literature, and cultural history. From this unique point of view, World War I surely seemed a sort of second Salamis, a pivotal shift in the balance of power in which long-dominant ideologies were marginalized or eradicated altogether. Musically, Ancient Greece and WWI symbolically collide in Salamine. Admired by the progressive Paul Dukas, Emmanuel’s score is a synthesis of the ancient and the modern that was rightly acclaimed as a masterpiece at the time of the opera’s première at the Opéra de Paris on 19 June 1929. Though revived at the Opéra the following season and arranged by the composer for concert presentation, in which form it was performed at least five times between 1932 and 1969, Salamine has never managed to emerge from the shadows. Thus are the stupid prejudices of Classical Music: were Salamine a ‘rediscovered’ work by Debussy, Puccini, or Schönberg, it would likely be acclaimed as a work of genius as it deserves to be.

Performed in concert as a part of a day-long radio celebration of Ancient Greece on 22 March 1958, Salamine was entrusted to the care of some of France’s most insightful veterans of radio and staged productions of an exceptionally wide range of music. The resulting broadcast recording has been brought back to life with startling immediacy by Solstice’s expert remastering. The singing of the Chœurs de la RTF is stirring throughout the performance, never more so than in ‘Déjà saisissant la rive de Thrace’ in Act One and ‘Qu’ils semblent loin, aux jours d'orage’ in Act Two. The chorus acts as a foundation to the opera’s action in the manner of Classical Greek tragedy, and the RTF singers provide a steadfast musical base. Under the direction of composer and conductor Tony Aubin, the musicians of the Orchestre radio-symphonique de la RTF deliver Emmanuel’s score excellently. The orchestra’s playing of the opera’s Ouverture orchestrale is both muscular and graceful, and the wonderful Prélude orchestral and Danse funèbre in Act Two receive aptly intense performances. Displaying the affinity that composers have often brought to performances of other composers’ works, Maestro Aubin maintains tight but elastic control even in the score’s most strenuous passages. The musical forces of Europe’s national radio services have rarely been recognized as first-rate ensembles, but the skill with which the RTF singers and musicians perform Emmanuel’s punishing music permits no questioning of their abilities and integrity.

Solely for the performance of baritone Lucien Lovano as le Coryphée this recording should be in the libraries of all of the world’s conservatories. From the first line of his opening mélodrame, ‘Tandis qu’au hasard des combats,’ Mr. Lovano gives a masterclass in the art of Sprechstimme. This brilliant artist takes Coryphée’s narrations to the edge of Sprechgesang, his careful articulation of pitches heightening the dramatic impact of his utterances to an extraordinary degree. In Act Two, his intoning of ‘Reine, que vénère la Perse’ is powerful and pointed. In every line of his part, Mr. Lovano’s diction enhances the consequence of his performance, and he conjures a stylized, dramatically-charged environment for his colleagues.

Mr. Lovano’s histrionic authority is matched by the firm, resonant singing of bass André Vessières as l'ombre de Darius. A stalwart of French radio productions, Mr. Vessières was a talented singer to whom the oft-repeated cliché suggesting that he would be a celebrated artist were he singing today is uncommonly applicable. Certainly, he possessed a beautiful voice, and he gives of his best in this performance. His singing of ‘Si l’oracle des dieux n’est pas trompeur, croyez’ lends the shade of Darius the dignity and menace that he should have, and Mr. Vessière makes a huge impression in what ultimately is a small rôle. Bass-baritone Bernard Demigny is also a source of strength as le Messager: the energy and focused tone that he brings to his singing of ‘O cités de l’Asie! O trésor sans pareil’ and ‘Tu sauras tous nos maux: châtiment ou rancune’ are allied with a genuine presence that injects dramatic momentum into the performance.

One of the principal glories of the French school of singing since its inception has been the tradition of heady, altitudinous tenor vocalism. Though Emmanuel’s vocal lines are vastly different from both the haute-contre writing by Lully and Rameau and the music for the Grand Opéra rôles by Meyerbeer, Gounod, and Massenet, the music for tenor voices in Salamine requires the same eloquence and stamina demanded by Meyerbeer’s Raoul de Nangis, Gounod’s Faust, and Massenet’s Werther. In this performance, the tenor rôles are entrusted to a pair of the finest French singers of the mid-Twentieth Century. Portraying a dignitary of the Persian court in Act One, Joseph Peyron sings beautifully, making the most of his few lines. One of the few tenors to take on the Herculean rôle of Énée in Berlioz’s Les Troyens—a part in which he was recorded twice, first in a near-complete performance under the direction of Berlioz specialist Sir Thomas Beecham for the BBC in 1947 and in a studio recording of Les Troyens à Carthage conducted by Hermann Scherchen in 1952—in the modern era, Jean Giraudeau was an adventurous artist with a wide repertory, having also created the rôle of the Chevalier de la Force in the French première of Poulenc’s Dialogues des carmélites in June 1957, and a voice that retained sweetness to the top of the range. As Xerxès in Salamine, Mr. Giraudeau faced a considerably less arduous vocal task than in Les Troyens, but his performance lacks nothing in terms of concentration and involvement. In his performance of ‘Hélas! trois fois infortuné’ in Act Three, he credibly depicts the grandeur of the historical Xerxes, and the voice is both secure and attractive.

A stern but respected presence at Baltimore’s Peabody Institute in the 1970s and ‘80s, ​Swiss-born soprano​ Flore Wend, selected by the famously finicky Ernest Ansermet to sing Yniold in his 1952 recording of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande [in which Mr. Vessières also participated] and the title rôle in his unsurpassed recording of Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges [an opera in which Mr. Lovano, Mr. Peyron, and Mr. Vessières were also recorded], is now remembered by few other than students whose careers she influenced. As la reine Atossa in Salamine, she reveals a distinctive timbre and a freshness of voice that give her singing a special allure. The tone is rarely beautiful, but the beauty that she achieves in her performance is unmistakable. The vigor of her singing of ‘L’angoisse et le souci que je devine en toi’ in the second scene of Act One is pulse-quickening, but her regal demeanor is never lost. Later, in ‘Le silence et l’horreur m’ont cloué​e à​​ ma place’ in the third scene of Act One, her grasp of the dramatic situation catapults the opera towards tragedy. Atossa is a part very dissimilar to Debussy’s Yniold and Ravel’s Enfant, but Ms. Wend dominates the music—and, indeed, the performance as a whole—from first note to last. Demonstrating a vastly different facet of her artistry, this performance adds immeasurably to the appreciation of Ms. Wend’s career. It also increases the guarded optimism for additional recordings of her work to emerge from private collections and radio archives.

The French artist Auguste Rodin once wrote, ‘Je n’invente rien, je redécouvre’—‘I invent nothing, I rediscover.’ In this era in which it seems that all there is little left to discover about Classical Music and Opera, the emergence of a performance like this 1958 RTF traversal of Maurice Emmanuel’s Salamine provides a rare opportunity not only to rediscover an overlooked score but also to reevaluate the misconceptions that contributed to its neglect. In its unapologetic homage to Ancient Greece, there is a whiff of academia to Salamine, but it is a sensationally original work that deals with timeless—and timely—themes of conflicts among individuals, cultures, and civilizations. It is perhaps damning to the opera’s prospects for reintegration into the repertory to suggest that a cast could not be assembled today to equal the group of artists who stepped before RTF microphones in 1958, but the discography is richer for the release of this recording. For the invention, Maurice Emmanuel is to be extolled: for the rediscovery, the insightful efforts of Solstice are to be applauded.

IN REVIEW: a rare photo of Swiss soprano FLORE WEND, la reine Atossa in Solstice's recording of the 1958 RTF broadcast of Maurice Emmanuel's SALAMINE LA BELLE REINE ATOSSA: a rare photograph of Swiss soprano Flore Wend, who sings the rôle of Queen Atossa in Solstice’s recording of the 1958 RTF broadcast of Maurice Emmanuel’s Salamine [Photo from private collection]