Thursday, May 01, 2008

Rameau-Berlioz-Gounod-Debussy-Vierne-Les Six

While my father has been away, my mother and Josh and I have been listening to six discs of French music ranging from the Baroque period to the early 20th Century. These discs have given us a lot of pleasure.

Orchestral suites from Rameau’s “Nais” and “Le Temple De La Gloire”, performed by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra under Nicholas McGegan, on the Harmonia Mundi label

Berlioz’s Prix De Rome Cantatas, performed by Michele Lagrange, Beatrice Uria-Monzon, Daniel Galvez-Vallejo, the Nord-Pas-De-Calais Chorus and the Lille National Philharmonic under Jean-Claude Casadesus, on the Naxos label

Gounod’s Saint Cecilia Mass, performed by Barbara Hendricks, Laurence Dale, Jean-Philippe Lafont, the ORTF Chorus and the Nouvel Orchestre Philharmonique De Radio France under Georges Pretre, on the Musical Heritage Society label

Piano music of Debussy, performed by Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, on the Deutsche Grammophon label

Organ symphonies of Louis Vierne, performed by Michael Murray, on the Telarc label

“Paris 1920”, a disc of music by Poulenc, Milhaud and Honegger, performed by the Orchestre De Paris under Semyon Bychkov, on the Philips label

The Harmonia Mundi disc of Jean-Philippe Rameau orchestral suites from “Nais” and “Le Temple De La Gloire” is a real disappointment. The disc features dull playing and even duller conducting.

For some reason, the U.S.—unlike France, Germany and Great Britain—cannot produce high-quality period-instrument ensembles. California-based Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, the oldest period-instrument ensemble extent in the U.S., has been playing for over 25 years, and during this period it has witnessed the establishment and demise of several other period-instrument groups in other parts of the U.S.

Why has the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra survived when so many other U.S. period-instrument ensembles have foundered? I have no idea, because the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra is certainly not any good—it plays at the level of a barely-proficient amateur ensemble, nothing more, and it is far outpaced in terms of ensemble and musicianship by even the most second-rank of European groups.

Music schools in France, Germany and Britain devote much more attention to period-instrument performance than American music schools, which is probably why American ensembles are so dismal in this field.

I, for one, have no problem with this—and, further, I have no problem with conceding the entire field of period-instrument performance of Baroque music to European specialist ensembles. Such endeavors should hardly be the mission or province of musicians of a young, vibrant nation.

Nevertheless, performances by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra are so lame it borders on the ridiculous, if not the outright scandalous. Isn’t it long past time this feeble ensemble disbanded? And what does it say about the musical knowledge, taste and judgment of its local audience that this pathetic group continues to attract paying customers?

The orchestral suites from the two Rameau stage works are comprised of the overtures and selected dance movements. This is glorious music, hugely affective and hugely effective, marked by beguiling tunes, captivating rhythms and piquant instrumentations.

However, none of this comes across in the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra’s playing, which is dull as dishwater. The playing is positively comatose. There is no sense of French style anywhere, no French verve, no French fragrance, no French timbre and no French elegance. Rhythmically lifeless, the music-making is inexpressive and unenergetic. Given these shortcomings, the fact that the ensemble work is inexcusably shoddy is practically irrelevant. This disc is a non-starter. I am appalled that it was ever issued.

Much of the blame must be assigned to British conductor Nicholas McGegan. In a field crowded with marginal British talents serving as period-instrument leaders (John Eliot Gardiner, Christopher Hogwood, Roger Norrington, Trevor Pinnock, a group known as the “semi-conductors”), McGegan is generally considered to be the least talented of all. Why does this man still get work?

For the past couple of years, McGegan has appeared often in the Twin Cities, serving as one of the “associates” of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. A couple of months ago, the orchestra announced that it was ending its association with McGegan, effective at the end of the current concert season—to no one’s surprise, surely, because McGegan has hardly been a success here—and I was pleased to see that he had been given the shove so quickly, and without ado. There was simply no point in keeping him on.

The disc of Hector Berlioz Prix De Rome Cantatas is both fascinating and frustrating. First issued on the Harmonia Mundi label in 1996, and reissued by Naxos in 2003, the disc is the only recording ever issued of all four cantatas, although the two cantatas for female vocalist, “Herminie” and “La Mort De Cleopatre”, are very well-known and have been recorded many times.

Berlioz competed for the Prix De Rome for five consecutive years. He failed to pass the first round on his first try (a counterpoint examination), but he moved on to the second and final round in 1827, 1828, 1829 and 1830, the year in which he finally was awarded the prize. In order, his entries were “La Mort D’Orphee”, “Herminie”, “La Mort De Cleopatre” and “La Mort De Sardanapale”, all written to prescribed texts handed to the contestants 25 days before their compositions had to be submitted to the adjudication panels.

All four of the cantatas are of very high quality, and quite original for 1820’s France (a nation still under the musical domination of Luigi Cherubini). They display all of Berlioz’s hallmarks—interesting rhythmic and harmonic twists, imaginative settings of text, the widest possible range of emotion, and glorious orchestration—and it is instantly apparent that these cantatas are from the same period as Berlioz’s youthful “Symphonie Fantastique”.

The first cantata requires a tenor, female chorus and orchestra, the second a soprano and orchestra (although it is often sung by mezzo soprano), the third a mezzo soprano and orchestra, and the fourth a tenor, male chorus and orchestra. Only a fragment of the winning cantata, “The Death Of Sardanapalus”, survives.

The performances on the Naxos disc are not distinguished. They are capable, and pleasing, but not memorable. “Herminie” (soprano Michele Lagrange) and “The Death Of Cleopatra” (mezzo soprano Beatrice Uria-Monzon) receive the finest performances on the disc, but these two cantatas are widely available in even finer performances elsewhere, including at least one standard-setting set of performances of both works involving Janet Baker and Colin Davis on the Philips label.

This is only the second recording of “The Death Of Orpheus”, and the very first recording of the surviving fragment of “The Death Of Sardanapalus”, but these two cantatas are less well-served on the Naxos disc. This is because the tenor, Daniel Galvez-Vallejo, is very unimpressive. As captured by the microphone, Galvez-Vallejo’s voice is not pleasing—the voice is grainy, and registers are not knit together. He also does not make much of the music or text. He simply strains to sing notes. I would very much like to hear what Roberto Alagna could do with these works.

The orchestra, chorus and conductor are minimally competent, nothing more. The whole enterprise has the whiff of a radio-performance run-through (which I suspect it was). It is easy to understand why this disc did not survive long in the Harmonia Mundi catalog. It remains, however, the only disc ever issued containing all four Berlioz Prix De Rome cantatas. As such, it is invaluable, especially since it is now available at budget price.

Charles Gounod’s mass devoted to Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of music, was written in 1855 and premiered on November 22 of that year (Saint Cecilia’s Day) at the great church of Saint Eustache in Paris, three years before the composer completed writing “Faust”.

I have loved this work since the first time I heard it. It is tuneful and voluptuous, but also pious, befitting Gounod’s original intention to enter the priesthood.

Some people find Gounod’s Saint Cecilia Mass to be insufficiently serious. They object to its tuneful sequence of marches, dances and songs used to underlay the text of the Latin mass. Some commentator somewhere wrote that Gounod’s Saint Cecilia Mass was an incongruous mixture of operetta, Palestrina and salon music, all somehow sandwiched between occasional pages of Beethoven. If so, I love the combination.

My father detests the Gounod mass. He invariably describes it as “a sugary confection”. My mother enjoys it somewhat more, although she says that the individual components, pleasing as they are, do not amount to a satisfactory whole.

I prefer to take the work on its own terms, and to accept it as the sincere, lush, enjoyable work of devotion it is. It is very French, and very French Roman Catholic, and very Napoleon III, but within that realm it is entirely successful. I also find it to be a work of great power and beauty.

The work has been recorded a few times, but the only version I have heard is Pretre’s, recorded in 1983 and originally issued on EMI.

The Pretre recording is OK, although the orchestra is not very good. The chorus is somewhat better, and the soloists better still, although only soprano Barbara Hendricks is truly first-class. Nonetheless, this disc always gives me pleasure, and it was good to hear it again after five or six years.

I wish American orchestras and choruses would program the Gounod mass on occasion. I think audiences here would like it.

Josh hated it.

In Josh’s eyes, however, the Michelangeli disc of Claude Debussy piano music made up for anything sub-par in the other discs we listened to. Josh had never heard the Michelangeli Debussy disc before, and he found it to be overwhelming.

One of the classics of the gramophone, Michelangeli’s Debussy disc has been legendary from the day it was issued in 1971. It has never been out of print. Today, thirty-seven years after its initial release, it remains in the catalog at full price, despite the fact that it contains only 45 minutes of music. It is the most profitable piano disc ever issued by Deutsche Grammophon in the 110-year history of the company, having sold, literally, hundreds of thousands of copies worldwide.

Is this the greatest Debussy piano disc ever made? I can think of none finer.

Only three compositions are on the disc: Images I, Images II and the Children’s Corner Suite.

Michelangeli’s virtuosity is blinding. He may have been the most virtuosic of all 20th-Century pianists. The evenness of his runs in the opening movement of the Children’s Corner Suite, for example, is jaw-dropping. The power and control (and subtlety) he brings to the first movement of Images I are dumbfounding.

Michelangeli was much more than a virtuoso, however. He was also a great colorist, summoning an unparalleled array of color and texture and voicing from the keyboard. He had no rival in creating a unique and unlimited sound world from an instrument that, in other hands, sounds monochrome by comparison. Only Gieseking, another great Debussy pianist, had a comparable command and range of keyboard color.

Debussy was the most original of composers, especially in his writing for the keyboard. Debussy was so original that it was difficult for other composers to borrow from him. Other than his use of the whole-tone scale, borrowed by everyone from Scriabin to Puccini to Bartok, and his use of modal writing, borrowed by English composers such as Ralph Vaughan Williams, Debussy’s music is so original that it does not easily lend itself to theft. Debussy’s harmonies are so unique, so “Debussian”—parallel chords, ninth chords, thirteenth chords, unprepared harmonic shifts—that no one else has been able to make use of these harmonic devices in a satisfactory, individual way (Karol Szymanowski probably came closest).

Drawing harmonic inspiration from Cesar Franck, an inspiration for exotic sounds from Jules Massenet, and an inspiration for clarity and brevity of expression from Emmanuel Chabrier, Debussy broke French music free from German hegemony and influence. French music has never been the same ever since.

Much as I love most Debussy orchestral works, I have always believed that Debussy wrote his very greatest music for the piano. Both sets of Images, along with the Preludes and the Etudes, are the very heart of his compositional output. In these works, Debussy changed piano writing forever, abandoning the Mozart-Haydn model on which most 19th-Century keyboard music was based, in favor of something new, different and wholly original. I could listen—and have listened—to Debussy’s mature piano music for hours on end.

The Michelangeli Debussy disc is one of those recordings that may be enjoyed repeatedly, if not endlessly, and never become stale. Josh loved his first encounters with this disc, and we played it again and again and again.

The Telarc disc contains Louis Vierne’s Organ Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3, recorded on the Cavaille-Coll organ at the Abbey Church Of Saint Ouen in Rouen in Normandy.

Vierne, legally blind, was organist of the Cathedral Of Notre Dame in Paris for thirty-seven years. He died in 1937 at the Notre Dame organ’s keyboard at the conclusion of a recital, felled by a heart attack at age 67.

I have attended several Sunday afternoon organ recitals at the Cathedral Of Notre Dame, and at a recital I attended at Notre Dame in 2004 Vierne’s Organ Symphony No. 3 was programmed. Parisians must like the music of Vierne: the Cathedral was full that afternoon, and the audience applauded for eight minutes at the conclusion of the work.

That afternoon and evening were memorable for me. I remained at the Cathedral after that particular organ recital in order to attend the early evening Sunday Mass. During that service, either one of the thuribles malfunctioned or one of the altar participants got carried away and put too many hot coals into his thurible, causing the incense to catch fire. Whatever the cause, the giant Cathedral filled with smoke, and the Mass had to be halted as half a dozen priests hurriedly tried to deal with all the smoke belching from the thurible. Finally, one of the priests removed the offending thurible from the Cathedral and the service continued, although worshippers were coughing themselves silly because smoke still filled the vast space.

Vierne is one of the central figures of French organ music, both as composer and performer. Vierne was a pupil of Franck and Charles Marie Widor. In turn, he taught Marcel Dupre, Nadia Boulanger, Maurice Durufle, Olivier Messiaen and Jean Langlais, among others. Several renowned specialists in organ music have written that Vierne was the most important composer of music for organ since Bach.

Myself, I do not hear greatness in Vierne’s music. Franck’s harmonies were more interesting than Vierne’s, and Franck’s music more profound. Widor had a greater melodic gift than Vierne, and Widor’s music has more overt energy and thrust. Vierne’s music, to me, operates at a much lower level of inspiration than that of his two teachers. It is well-crafted but bland, lacking memorability and genuine depth of expression.

I also believe that Vierne lacked an individual voice, always the sine qua non for a great composer. One may argue that Franck and Widor lacked individual voices, too, but those two composers were paragons of individuality compared to Vierne. For me, a little of Vierne’s music goes a long way.

Organists appreciate Vierne’s music because it is so well-written for the instrument, but the musical public outside of France seems never to have exhibited much interest in Vierne’s music. All glowing assessments of Vierne’s music I have come across were written by fellow organists.

I suppose the performances on this disc are exemplary, because Michael Murray was a student of Dupre. Murray has always struck me as an extrovert, even flashy, musician—totally at sea in the music of Bach, for instance—but there are no signs of undue flashiness on Murray’s part on the Telarc disc. These are serious performances of serious music.

It is the music itself that does not maintain my attention. About seven minutes into each Vierne work, my interest starts to wane.

My mother thinks somewhat more highly of Vierne’s music than I do, but Vierne is hardly one of her favorite composers. For Josh, the beautiful organ sonorities were nice for a few minutes, after which he lost all interest in the music. Repeated listening did not make the music more attractive or meaningful for him.

“Paris 1920” is one of the discs Semyon Bychkov recorded during his unsuccessful tenure with the Orchestre De Paris. The disc is comprised of scores to two ballets, Francis Poulenc’s “Les Biches” (the popular suite from the ballet, not the complete ballet score) and Darius Milhaud’s “Le Boeuf Sur Le Toit”, to which Arthur Honegger’s Mouvement Symphonique No. 1, “Pacific 231”, is tacked on as a makeweight.

These scores are delightful, but the performances are not. The orchestral playing is not good—the ensemble “swims”—and the sound quality of the Orchestre De Paris is not pleasing. Further, Bychkov has no feel for this repertory. Just about every performance and every recording of these works I have encountered have been much, much better than the indifferent, unstylish, uninflected performances offered here.

For persons familiar with this repertory, the disc is a waste of time.


  1. I’m pleased, Andrew, that you numbered Gardiner among those English mediocrities. Bach is my number “1” composer, and I have tried mightily over the last couple of decades to warm to this conductor, to no avail. Moreover, my general attitude toward the whole period-instrument movement is not far removed from that of Pinchas Zuckerman, who, at least 15 years ago, considered the movement to be a total deception, in the name of the almighty dollar (or pound).

    I concede that my taste in Baroque music may be unshakably old fashioned, but I was brought up – or, rather, I brought myself up – on Karl Richter’s music making during the sixties and seventies; and my Bach cantata collection, for instance, contains the 26-disc Richter set. (I attended many concerts by the Munich Bach Choir and Orchestra - IN Munich - during the seventies; and I was very fortunate to hear Richter's very last Munich "B-minor Mass" before he died in 1980.)

    I have never been able to put out money for any of the current Gardiner “Pilgrim” releases, notwithstanding his series’ “completeness,” even though that series is considered by many of my acquaintances as “definitive.”

    Bach’s music and the performance of Bach’s music are very important to me. I find Gardiner and other proponents of the period-instrument persuasion to be completely soulless. Richter, I believe, understood the Lutheran spirit of Bach, which is at the heart of everything – sacred and secular – this composer wrote.


  2. John Eliot Gardiner stinks--there's just no getting around it.

    He's not half-bad in Handel, but in everything else he is genuinely dreadful, so incompetent it is startling.

    I have one of Gardiner's Bach cantata discs, but I have never listened to it. The disc I have is on the Archiv label, before Deutsche Grammophon dumped him and Gardiner set up his own label.

    There are so many Bach cantatas, I find them to be overwhelming. One could spend a lifetime exploring Bach cantatas, and never come to terms with them.

    Both Gardiner and Norrington made a round of U.S. orchestras many years ago, courtesy of their managers, who were trying to build American careers for both conductors. Neither conductor was asked back anywhere.

    Gardiner had a big blow-up with some U.S. orchestra, I forget which, and Norrington had a big blow-up with Cleveland, whose members believed him to be the worst conductor ever perpetrated on the orchestra in its history.

    Here in Minnesota, we had Christopher Hogwood at the helm of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for five years, from 1987 to 1992. Hogwood did not work out at all, and his contract was not extended.

    The SPCO tends to be efficient in getting rid of conductors--swiftly--who do not display the necessary goods. That is one thing I like about the SPCO.

    One thing I dislike about the SPCO is that it seems to be willing to give ANYONE a chance.

    I have never listened to much Richter. I think many of his recordings are out-of-print, are they not?

    I have a couple of his Bach organ discs, and that is it.

    My father has told me that Richter was a hopeless alcoholic, and a vicious, petty, insecure man (not that that impacts the quality of his performances).

  3. Correction: Richter died in 1981 (February). The final concert I heard was, if I recall, in January or that year. Apologies.


  4. Andrew, your father is right about Richter - as a person. A friend of mine, an organist at a church in Augsburg, took lessons from him in the mid-seventies. He told me all about his drunkedness, his French actress "companion," and his surely manners. I remember being heart-broken at the time, but somehow I was able to dismiss all that when I heard him perform in Munich.


  5. Oh, yes, Andrew, by the way, I remember the news about Norrington's Cleveland disaster. If I recall, the musicians' official complaint was that Norrington wore Bahama shorts or cut-offs at his rehearsal in the Blossom Music Center; but when I wrote to one player in the violin section, the player responded that there was "no conductor" on the podium for that concert (i.e., they ignored him - totally).


  6. If you want to hear some truly awful period-instrument Bach, see if your local library has the Harmonia Mundi discs of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos performed by Die Akademie Alte Musik Berlin, or whatever that ensemble calls itself.

    Those discs have to be heard to be believed!

    The first time I put volume one into the disc player, the sound that came out was so frightening I at first thought there was a manufacturing defect in the disc!

    Never have I heard such unmusical performances!

    Joshua Kosman of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote that those performances were the finest Brandenburgs ever recorded, which merely confirmed to me how awful those performances truly were.

    It is always good to have contra-confirmation from an idiot--or, as my father puts it, "Always keep abreast of what dumb people are doing and thinking. You will learn a lot."

  7. I believe that recording of the Berlin Academy of Ancient Music is out of print. I think I heard it, or a small part of it. I write "think," because my memory may have shut the experience out of my mind. If it was the same ensemble, I considered them to be the German version of the Portsmouth Sinfonia, once cited by the Guiness Book of World Records as the worst orchestra in the world.


  8. I bought that group's set of the Brandenburgs as well as its set of the orchestral suites.

    I listened to volume one of the Brandenburgs--Nos. 1, 3 and 5--a few times, and was never able to get beyond that. Both sets have been sitting on the shelf, untouched, ever since.

  9. I have shocking news for you, Andrew.

    The Philadelphia Orchestra is playing Mahler's Eighth this weekend in Eschenbach's next-to-last weekend as Music Director, and THE PERFORMANCES ARE NOT SOLD OUT!

    There are only three performances, tonight, tomorrow night (I go then) and Saturday night, and NONE OF THE PERFORMANCES SOLD OUT!

    Mahler's Eighth will sell out anywhere in the world under any conductor, but not in Philadelphia if Eschenbach is conducting.

    That is the surest sign yet that people here really, really, REALLY do not like Eschenbach.

    It is best for all that he is leaving.

    I am not into French music as much as you, and the only one of those recordings I have is the Debussy. It's a classic, obviously, but I never listen to it. Debussy piano music is not really congenial territory for me.

    I'm glad, though, you like it and get so much enjoyment from it.

    It's too bad you live so far away from Philly. I'd have invited you to come to Eschenbach's farewell this week (next week, his REAL farewell, is just standard programming, an odd way to wind up an era).

  10. Drew:

    Last night I went to ENO's new "Merry Widow". It was a lovely production, lavish sets and costumes (traditional). Musically it did not come together, but most of the audience loved it. Amanda Roocroft was the lead.

    I don't know any of these discs, but I think I may have heard the Debussy at one time or another on the FM.