New discs reconfigure French music classics

  • by Tim Pfaff
  • Tuesday December 26, 2023
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New discs reconfigure French music classics

At least since the era of the LP, classical music buffs have argued about "perfect" opera recordings. The only agreement has been on the 1953 studio "Tosca" with Maria Callas.

And now, with the dominance of live opera recordings in several formats, the ground has been shifting. It can be a tiresome game, this perfect-recording business. But then when a new one comes along, the old excitement comes back.

Composer Leo Delibes  

Leo Delibes' "Lakme" has long been regarded as a star vehicle for coloratura sopranos, a high-water mark in the otherwise dubious aesthetic of orientalism, and a piece more pretty than beautiful. In its recent return to Paris's Opera Comique (Naxos DVD), where the opera had its premiere in 1883, everything old became new.

Soprano Sabine Devieilhe, who has made the title character a calling card for the better part of a decade, gives her finest performance to date. The role contains some of the great bonbons of opera —the "Flower Duet," of airline-reservations acclaim, and the "Bell Song," the work's vocal showpiece.

Devieilhe doesn't just nail the tortuous coloratura, she gives a deeply moving performance of music often appreciated —and dismissed— as decorative. But whereas the drama in "Lakme" has previously focused on whether the exponent of the title role can sing the "Bell Song" accurately and survive, Devieilhe renders the piece as the opera's dramatic core, an acknowledgement of the character's personal enslavement but with more than a high note of defiance.

She's heart-rending throughout but almost unbearably so in the final act, where she shades every turn of the sinewy, chromatic music with the ache of first, and then lost, love. Matching her in ardor and command of the vocal high range is French tenor Frederic Anton as Gerald, the British soldier in imperial India who loses the war for military honor by winning the heart of the priestess Lakme.

The cast is uniformly fine, but particularly Stephane Degout as Lakme's father and earthly lord, Nilakanta (there's more than a dash of "Rigoletto" here), carves his character's unyielding hand but ultimately broken heart out of one of the most splendid dramatic baritone on the stage today. Raphael Pichon, leading his ensemble Pygmalion, shows what a masterful score "Lakme" —posed between Wagner and Debussy— can be in the right hands.

A carnival of animation
Francois-Xavier Roth, whose historically informed performance ensemble, Les Sieceles, is currently knocking Europe out in repertoire ranging from Mozart to Ligeti, again turns his attention to the music of Camille Saint-Saens, in "Symphonic Poems" (Harmonia Mundi). "The Carnival of the Animals," arguably the composer's most popular work, takes up most of the second disc. Roth's puts the innumerable previous recordings out to pasture, so to speak.

This is a true carnival with vivid musical impersonations of the animals. Adding further animation to the proceedings is the charming "Pianistes," performed by Jean Sugitani and Micheal Ertzcheid playing a 1928 Playel "double piano," two facing keyboards on the same instrument. This handily takes the "original-instruments" sweepstakes of the year.

But the meat (sorry, animals) of the new release is the first disc's assembly of orchestral tone poems, only one of which, the "Bacchanale" from the opera "Samson et Dalila," is familiar. Les Siecles leaves you wondering why we don't hear these pieces in concert — ever, if not regularly. Saint-Saens's music always "sells," and these pieces plumb greater depths than many of the composer's other orchestral works.

The sun-chariot ride in "Phaeton" has the urgency of Schubert's "Erlkönig." "La Jeunesse d'Hercule" ("Hercules's Youth") upends the expectation of heroic strength with music of great delicacy and the arrays of instrumental color that are a Roth specialty. "Le rouet d'Omphale" ("The Wheel of Omphale") emerges as peppy as Francois-marie Drieux's violin wizardry in "Danse macabre."

Soprano Veronique Gens's searing account of Francois Poulenc's solo-soprano monologue "La Voix humaine," a great singer at peak power in a scorchingly dramatic piece, is a catalog upender and one of the finest recordings of the year. Les Siecles, here under Mathieu Romano, underwrites Poulenc's "Stabat Mater" (Aparte), similarly giving the work a fresh coat of paint.

King Rousset
The indefatigable Christophe Rousset, maestro of Les Talens Lyrique, the brilliant band of "original instrumentalists" that just celebrated its remarkable 30th anniversary, rounded out its singular, ear-changing, ever-insightful survey of the operas of Jean-Baptiste Lully, royal composer of Louis XIV and one of the most colorful gay figures among opera composers.

The surpassingly gorgeous "Therese" (Aparte) and the must-hear "Psyche" (Chateau Versailles) will convince any remaining doubters that Lully wrote music for the ages as much as for the French court.

In another win for music brought about by the shutdown accompanying COVID-19, Rousset as solo harpsichordist, the guise in which he introduced himself to an astounded public, recorded Bach's "Die Kunst der Fuge" ("The Art of Fugue") (Aparte). It's a work of such exalted status in the canon (no pun intended) that musicians of many stripes have gravitated to it, while commentators have questioned whether it should be performed at all. Rousset gives a decisive yes.

Gaetan Naulleau's insightful notes explore the history and the mystery of the work, but the penetrating mind powering this interpretation is Rousset's. Playing an instrument of Bach's time but anonymous maker (from a private collection; Rousset has access to the finest old instruments in the world), Rousset traces the fugues' elaborate counterpoint with incomparable transparency. Music that can be forbidding from others is, here, as inviting as it is formidable. This is a recording as inexhaustible as the work it addresses, head on.

Fan de Les Siecles
While we're in the neighborhood (France, that is), two other recordings are as spellbinding as they are mind-altering. Pianist Bertrand Chamayou new disc (Warner) pairs the hypnotic music of Eric Satie with music by John Cage it strongly influenced. Chamyou recently commented how hard it is to play music as seemingly simple as this, but all the listener gets here is transcendence.

Cedric Tiberghien's two-disc "Variations" (Harmonia Mundi, volume 2) takes another plunge into the piano variations of Beethoven. On this disc he plays the 32 C-Minor Variations, WoO 80, that listeners can never get too much of, particularly given how seldom these winning variations are heard in recital. Other variations included here are by Cage, Bach, Morton Feldman, George Crumb, and Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck.

Ravel ("L'Heure espagnole" and "Bolero") gets luxury treatment by Roth and Les Siecles (Harmonia Mundi). Tiberghien joins Roth for the two piano concertos, played on an 1892 Pleyel, and a scrumptious selection of songs delivered with love by Degout.

Leo Delibes, "Lakme," soprano Sabine Devieilhe, Raphael Pichon conducting Pygmalion, Naxos, 2 DVDs.

Camille Saint-Saens, "Symphonic Poems, Les Siecles," Francois-Xavier Roth, Harmonia Mundi, 2 CDs and streaming. www.harmonia

Francis Poulenc, "Stabat Mater, Les Siecles," Mathieu Roman, conductor Aparte, CD and streaming,

La Voix humaine, "Veronique Gens," National Orchestra of Lille, Alexandre Bloch, conductor, Alpha, CD and streaming,

J.S. Bach, "Die Kunst der Fuge," Christophe Rousset, harpsichord, Aparte, CD and streaming),

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