Saint-Saëns: Samson et Dalila

COMPOSERS: Saint-Saens
LABELS: Naxos Historical
WORKS: Samson et Dalila
PERFORMER: Bouvier, Luccioni; cond. Fourestier
CATALOGUE NO: 8.110063-64 ADD mono


Marston’s new release, THE EDISON TRIALS: Voice Audition Cylinders of 1912-13, permits collectors of early vocal recordings to indulge in that favourite pastime, longing for what never was. What recordings might we now possess had the sole arbiter of good singing for the Edison Company been someone other than the inventor himself, a ‘connoisseur’ whose main concern was that a voice should not contain vibrato? In any case, here is a stash of recordings featuring 75 European singers in roughly two-minute segments, not intended for commercial release but made merely to give Edison an idea of the quality of each voice (he rejected them all, by the way). While the vocalises and truncated or incomplete excerpts included here make for unsatisfying casual listening, this set displays the work of dozens of important and accomplished singers. Some are quite obscure, and deservedly so; others are slightly better-known names who come alive here in their only surviving recordings. Many others are known by recordings for other companies, but it is fascinating to hear these additional snippets, in part because the recorded ambience is particularly immediate and vivid. Anyone with an interest in acoustical vocal recordings and performance styles of yesteryear can expect to find something intriguing in this well-produced grab bag. Other new Marston releases are of Gallic persuasion: the complete solo recordings of JANE BATHORI (1877-1970), who delivers songs by Debussy, Milhaud and many others with exemplary and (paradoxically) authoritative naturalness; a vocally potent 1912 performance of IL TROVATORE in the French-language version Verdi prepared for the 1857 Paris Opéra production, with additional ballet music and an extended finale among other changes; and a disc featuring the elegant singing of Opéra-Comique tenors LOUIS CAZETTE, CHARLES FRIANT and JEAN MARNY. Another pleasure comes courtesy of VAI’s disc of live and broadcast performances, mostly from 1951-2 and in front of enthusiastic audiences, by soprano ELLEN FAULL. Despite an active career in America that led her to a decade-long stint as a teacher of singing at the Juilliard, Faull made far too few commercial recordings, and VAI’s programme allows us to hear her free, even, wide-ranging, cream-toned voice in big Verdi and verismo arias. The proliferation of historical reissues often results in duplicate material that is differently packaged and processed by different companies. A case in point involves releases featuring American singers JAN PEERCE and LEONARD WARREN; two of their duets recorded in 1946 are included in Memoir’s Peerce recital, while all four appear in Romophone’s complete edition of Warren’s 1939-47 Victor recordings. The Peerce disc is quite satisfying: these recordings pre-date the years in which his sound had become uncomfortably dry; here his energy is infectious, his commitment palpable. Warren is justly acclaimed for powerful vocalism, but compared to Peerce there’s something studied and self-conscious about these early recordings. Memoir filters out any hint of surface noise, so that the classy sound seems veiled when compared to Romophone’s equally sophisticated, but more literal transcription. The 1954 broadcast of Weber’s DER FREISCHÜTZ from Wilhelm Furtwängler’s final Salzburg Festival also turns up simultaneously: the transfer from Music & Arts has marginally greater clarity – and a greater tendency toward uncomfortable wiriness – than the EMI incarnation. Furtwängler’s Freischütz is not his greatest legacy: it searches for profundity in music that demands sharply defined character. Especially in the more folkish scenes this performance seems to condescend to a work that deserves championing instead. One of the strengths, however, is the Agathe of ELISABETH GRÜMMER, whose Orfeo recital with pianist Aribert Reimann, featuring Lieder by Mendelssohn, Schumann, Schoeck and Wolf, casts further light on a fine singer who could project intimacy in opera and achieve a generally convincing blend of dignity and flexibility on the concert platform. Naxos continues its onslaught of Metropolitan Opera broadcasts, leavening the offerings with a few commercial recordings (the much-respected Thill/Vallin WERTHER and the Bouvier/Luccioni SAMSON ET DALILA), the Reiner-led 1936 Covent Garden TRISTAN UND ISOLDE with Flagstad and Melchior (Ward Marston’s second, improved go at this recording) and Toscanini’s forced, unidiomatic MAGIC FLUTE from the 1937 Salzburg Festival. If this project threatens to become indiscriminate, Pearl’s series of ‘Supreme Operatic Recordings’ is too blinkered by half: both the MOZART and WAGNER discs consist almost entirely of HMV recordings of the Twenties and Thirties (and Forties, in the case of Mozart). Much as I love Leider, Melchior and Schorr in Wagner, to hear them in excerpt after excerpt distorts the picture – Flagstad, anyone? A longer timeline and greater awareness of singers who worked for other labels would be prerequisites for helping this series live up to its billing.