LABELS: INA Mémoire Vive
WORKS: Le diable boiteux; Oedipus rex
PERFORMER: Hugues Cuénod (tenor), Jean Vilar (speaker), etc; RTF NO& Chorus/Ernest Ansermet
CATALOGUE NO: IMV 047 ADD mono
One of the major unsung heroes of 20th-century musical life must surely be the French conductor ROGER DÉSORMIÈRE. A close confidante of Erik Satie, he first established his reputation working for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in the Twenties, and subsequently maintained a close association with the avant-garde until a cerebral haemorrhage in 1952 tragically forced him to retire at the age of 54. Although Désormière’s limited recorded legacy includes arguably the finest ever interpretation of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, it is immeasurably enhanced by INA’s release of a broadcast concert made in 1950 with the RTF National Orchestra. The programme in itself demonstrates an astonishingly eclectic outlook in which neo-classical Stravinsky (the Concerto in D for strings) rubs shoulders with Dallapiccola in his most lyrical vein (Sex carmina Alcaei). After this comes whimsical Satie (the conductor’s own imaginative orchestration of Trois morceaux en forme de poire), early expressionist Boulez (Le soleil des eaux) and finally Bartók (Divertimento). Not surprisingly, repertoire of this difficulty tests the stamina of the orchestral players, and the opening of the Bartók nearly falls apart. But such imperfections of ensemble have to be balanced against the sheer conviction of the performances. The Boulez, for example, is delivered with white-hot intensity, and it’s little wonder that the audience responds with rapturous applause.
Two further INA releases are more of a mixed bag. It’s wonderful to hear the veteran Swiss tenor Hugues Cuénod (101 in June) enjoying himself so much in the cameo roles of JEAN FRANÇAIX’s chamber opera Le diable boiteux – a delightful early work in which the composer displays all his customary wit and elegance. Ernest Ansermet and the RTF Orchestra offer an incisive accompaniment here, but seem far less engaged in the opening section of STRAVINSKY’s Oedipus rex which sounds sluggish and suffers from weak choral singing. A further disadvantage of this 1951 broadcast recording is a considerable amount of pre-echo on the original tape, making it difficult to appreciate the composer’s dramatic silences.
Although of variable quality, sound is less of a problem in a disc of music by HENRI SAUGUET that encompasses a variety of chamber and vocal works recorded between 1948 and 1986. As a disciple of Satie, Sauguet is conventionally regarded as a composer who remained wedded to the ideals of Les Six. This impression is counterbalanced here by a much more ascetic tone that comes to the fore in the late Musique pour Cendrars and the intriguing musique concrète piece Aspect sentimental, though none of the works on this disc displays a truly distinctive personality.
It would be easy to pursue a similar argument with regard to the Piano Concerto by ARTHUR BLISS, once memorably described by Nicolas Slonimsky as ‘Lisztomorphic in its sonorous virtuosity, Chopinoid in its chromatic lyricism and Rachmaninovistic in its chordal expansiveness’. While the recording quality of the 1939 world premiere performance in New York with Solomon heard here is undoubtedly inferior to that of the 1943 HMV version (available on Naxos), the sheer bravura, energy and commitment of the playing casts away any lingering doubts. And the passionate advocacy of Constant Lambert in the 1946 broadcast premiere of the ballet Adam Zero makes one wonder why the work so quickly disappeared from the repertoire.
Another APR disc offers an unequivocal 20th-century classic with a previously unpublished 1952 live recording of MAHLER’s Das Lied von der Erde with Kathleen Ferrier and Richard Lewis and the Hallé Orchestra under John Barbirolli. Once again, an interpretation of fervour and profound sensitivity – with Lewis in particularly thrilling voice – somehow manages to override the poor quality of the original recording, which was actually made by an amateur enthusiast who was simply trying out his new Ferrograph tape recorder. Prospective purchasers of this release should also know that the opening seven bars of the work could not be resuscitated that radio interference affects some of the passages in the final song, ‘Der Abschied’.
There are no such imperfections of production on arguably the most historically significant of all these releases of 20th-century music. Without doubt the violinist RUDOLF KOLISCH should be regarded as yet another unsung hero of the period, having fought a valiant crusade in favour of the music of the Second Viennese School, especially at a time when it was deemed far too radical for widespread public consumption. A handsomely produced boxed set of six discs brings together Kolisch’s work as a chamber musician and soloist in this repertoire through a combination of private and commercial recordings that span 30 years of exile in the United States. Although each disc offers many fascinating rewards, I found myself most drawn to the mid-Thirties Hollywood recordings of Schoenberg’s four string quartets, apparently performed from memory by the Kolisch Quartet in the presence of the composer. A later post-war performance of Schoenberg’s Third Quartet with Kolisch leading the Pro Arte Quartet is perhaps less incisive, and the performance of Bartók’s Fifth Quartet with the same ensemble is technically flawed in places. But criticisms of this nature seem of little consequence given the sheer missionary zeal of Kolisch’s playing which enabled him even in later life to project the complexities of Schoenberg’s Violin Concerto or Bartók’s Solo Sonata to the most sceptical of audiences.