Poulenc: La voix humaine

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5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Poulenc
LABELS: INA Mémoire Vive
WORKS: La voix humaine
PERFORMER: Jane Rhodes; French National Orchestra/Jean-Pierre Marty
CATALOGUE NO: IMV 015 ADD Reissue (1976)
In the wrong musical hands it might have been just another woman’s weepie, but Poulenc turns Jean Cocteau’s romantic agony into a song of love and spiritual death. No wonder that the composer’s publisher hoped for Maria Callas, but Poulenc knew better. Cocteau’s spare text and Poulenc’s own bruised lyricism need a French soprano.

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Jane Rhodes, christened the Brigitte Bardot of opera, whose career blazed intermittently in Paris and New York in the Fifties and Sixties, was a legendary exponent of this role. She was an artist who brought an extraordinary emotional commitment to the woman who almost drowns in self-pity as she’s jilted by a lover on the telephone. And in this fine recording, made in 1976, Rhodes turns self-pity into almost unendurable suffering.

What Rhodes’s voice lacks in beauty of tone is doubly compensated for by a gripping expressivity. When she first speaks to her lover after a tangle of crossed lines she strokes the phrase ‘C’est toi’ like a lover’s hand, adding the tenderest of diminuendos. When she confesses her attempted suicide she transforms recent memory into a searing present tense, and in the orchestra Poulenc’s descending phrases mark the relentless tread of mortality. And at the end of this shipwrecked love affair Jane Rhodes’s half sob and the near break in the voice for her final ‘Je t’aime’ creates an emotional close-up of such intensity that even the orchestra cannot look away. Of course Denise Duval, who suffered alongside the composer as he wrote La voix humaine and who gave the first performance, has always had a particular claim on this work (EMI) and Felicity Lott in a more recent recording (Harmonia Mundi, reviewed January 2002) brings an unmistakably aristocratic touch to Poulenc’s Passion, but it’s Rhodes who really inhabits the role.

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Jean-Pierre Marty and the French National Orchestra are never less than sympathetic partners, and this is one of the first releases in a projected series of historical recordings from the archives of the French National Audiovisual Collection (see also Reissues, March). A perfect connection; let’s hope that there’ll be no wrong numbers as the series continues.