OP3223. L'ENFANCE DU CHRIST, w.Scherman Cond. Choral Arts Society & Little Orchestra Society; Léopold Simoneau, Mary Davenport, Martial Singher & Donald Gramm, recorded 1957; GRANDE MESSE DES MORTS - Sanctus, w.Münch Cond. Boston Symphony Orch. & New England Conservatory Chorus, w. Léopold Simoneau, recorded 26 April, 1959, Boston, Symphony Hall (both Berlioz). (Canada) 2-St Laurent Studio YSL 33-443.
“Berlioz’s unquenchable grandiosity didn’t always sit well with posterity, and a whiff of charlatanism accompanied his genius. Even with this in mind, I was startled by the opening of a review from December 11, 1951 by Olin Downes, the powerful music critic of THE NEW YORK TIMES: 'Berlioz’s L'ENFANCE DU CHRIST, so long neglected and absent from the repertory that to most of last night’s audience, including the writer, it was a novelty, received an admirable performance from the Little Orchestra Society under Thomas Scherman's direction in Town Hall’. Ah, for the days when newspaper reviewers wrote prose like Victorian gentlemen (never mind Downes’ vehement resistance to Mahler).
In 1951, Berlioz’s tender narration of scenes from the Nativity story was just on the verge of a flowering renaissance. The Fifties saw major recordings under Jean Martinon and Charles Munch - both classics - before the Sixties brought the first of Colin Davis’ three accounts and a high-profile one from André Cluytens. To a collector, the most sought-after of these for rarity is the Martinon. It derived from a French television broadcast whose soundtrack was later picked up by the obscure Guilde Internationale du Disque label but was never transferred to CD. Just as rarely, it features the great French tenor Alain Vanzo as the Narrator, singing with incomparable sweetness, seamless legato, and a floating head tone. To my knowledge, Vanzo never appeared in a commercial recording of the work.
A very close rival, however, would be the elegant French-Canadian lyric tenor Léopold Simoneau, who is featured on this invaluable reissue - and a premiere on CD, I believe - of the recording Scherman made for Columbia Records in 1957. Simoneau’s Narrator is a magnetic presence throughout, inflecting the text more dramatically than Vanzo, the voice melting and sweet, the vocal production even from bottom to top. Simoneau’s riveting narration is especially welcome in the Epilogue, where Berlioz’s inspiration (I find) tapers off after famous sections like Hérode’s monologue, the angle’s chorus, and the trio for two flutes and harp. Thanks to Simoneau, there’s no sense of falling off or anti-climax.
The other vocal highlight is baritone Martial Singher’s Hérode and Joseph, taking on two parts that are generally assigned to separate singers. His Hérode isn’t as big-voiced and tormented as Giorgio Tozzi for Munch, but Singher was an acclaimed stylist, and like Simoneau, he has the benefit of being a native French speaker. The authentic Gallic timbre makes a major difference. But it wasn’t until his third recording of L’ENFANCE DU CHRIST in 2007 that Colin Davis brought in a French narrator (the fairly obscure Yann Beuron). Before then, with the exception of Martinon and Vanzo, the part went to Peter Pears (Colin Davis 1), Philip Langridge (Colin Davis 2), Nicolai Gedda (Cluytens), and Cesare Valletti (Munch). All but Beuron are outstanding, and it takes nothing away from any of them that Simoneau sounds like the genuine article.
Also worth praise is Scherman’s vivid conducting, which comes closer to Munch’s dramatic handling of the score than almost anyone else. Scherman uses considerable flexibility in phrasing, a great asset in shaping Berlioz’s beautiful melodic lines. The Little Orchestra Society is miked in a roomy acoustic and fairly far back compared with the singers; their playing is everything it should be, and without having the numbers of Munch’s Boston Symphony, the orchestral part is full and satisfying. Also strong is the Choral Arts Society, even though French diction isn’t their strong suit. The only disappointment I registered was with mezzo Mary Davenport, whose powerful, alto-ish voice seems to fit Amneris more than the Virgin Mary. Stiff delivery and an absence of tenderness add to Davenport’s drawbacks.
I haven’t heard the vinyl issue of this performance, but working from LPs, the remastering by the St. Laurent Studio is clean and the overall sound clear, especially of the singers. As a ‘filler’ we get Simoneau in one of his most famous parts on disc, as the tenor in Munch’s Berlioz Requiem from 1959. He sings the ‘Sanctus’ with utmost beauty, and the recorded sound is comparable to RCA’s current CD version. This track is in stereo.
Here, then, is a very welcome and valuable release, rising to the top rank of recordings of L’ENFANCE DU CHRIST for everything but one singer. No program notes are provided, only a basic tack listing and cast. The set is available through Norbeck, Peters & Ford (www.norpete.com).”
- Huntley Dent, FANFARE
"Simoneau was the most elegant Mozart tenor of his time – and it was a time that saw the likes of Valletti, Gedda, Alva, Kraus and Burrows. He had a uniquely beautiful voice, seamlessly produced, with a rich, gleaming middle range and a perfect legato. His control of dynamics was peerless: any note could be swelled or diminished at will, without the slightest disturbance to the vocal line. All the finesse did not preclude strength and virility; Simoneau was always dramatically alive and responsive to the words."
- Ralph V. Lucano, AMERICAN RECORD GUIDE, May/June, 2005
“Martial Singher, a French baritone, made his Metropolitan Opera début in 1943. He made his début at the Paris Opéra in 1930 and soon became a principal baritone with the company. After 11 seasons with the Paris Opéra he enjoyed many guest appearances in Europe and South America. In more than 100 opera roles and in recitals with leading orchestras, he eschewed showmanship and histrionics and stressed smoothness, subtlety and clarity. He was particularly celebrated for the lean, elegant phrasing of his native French repertory.
Of his Met début as Dapertutto in LeS CONTES D'HOFFMANN, Virgil Thomson in THE NEW YORK HERALD TRIBUNE reported Mr. Singher ‘gave a stage performance of incomparable elegance and did a piece of singing that for perfection of vocal style had not been equaled since Kirsten Flagstad went away’.
Several weeks later at the Met Singher sang his first Pelléas. Mr. Thomson found him ’the glory of the evening, vocally impeccable and dramatically superb’. Olin Downes of THE NEW YORK TIMES hailed the baritone as ‘a fine and experienced artist, an authoritative actor, one firmly grounded in the traditions of his language and stage action and a potent element of the occasion’.
The baritone remained with the Met until 1959, when a severe heart disorder forced him to shift to teaching. He taught at the Mannes College of Music in Manhattan, the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and, as director of the voice and opera department, the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara (1962 to 1981), where he also produced operas. He was also an artist in residence at University of California at Santa Barbara.”
- Peter B. Flint, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 12 March, 1990
"Donald Gramm, a distinguished, aristocratic American bass-baritone, was unusual for an American singer because [his career] was concentrated almost entirely in this country. His work was divided between opera and concert appearances. He sang with the Metropolitan and New York City Operas, as well with opera companies, symphony orchestras and chamber series all over the country.
His voice ranged from the lowest bass notes into the upper baritone reaches. He had an unusually rich, noble tone, and although its volume may not have been large, it penetrated even the biggest theaters easily. Technically, he could handle bel-canto ornamentation fluently. But his real strengths lay in his aristocratic musicianship (impeccable phrasing that he polished by accompanying himself at the piano, and an easy command of five languages) and his instinctive acting.
Mr. Gramm's reviews were a litany of raves. In 1974, Harold C. Schonberg said in The New York Times that Mr. Gramm 'could not be faulted' as Sancho Panza in a Boston staging of Massenet's DON QUICHOTTE, and added that 'he never gives a bad performance'. In 1977, Donal Henahan of The Times called Mr. Gramm 'the premiere American male singer of art songs, an important artist at his peak'.
Following his New York City Opera debut as Colline in Puccini's LA BOHEME in 1952, Mr. Gramm sang with the City Opera nearly every season for more than 30 years. He made his debut at the Met on 10 Jan., 1964, as Truffaldino in Richard Strauss' ARIADNE AUF NAXOS....His principal bases for major roles became Sarah Caldwell's Opera Company of Boston and John Crosby's Santa Fe Opera, where he often sang unusual or contemporary repertory. Eventually, he assumed major parts at the Met as well, including the Doctor in Berg's WOZZECK, Papageno and Leporello in Mozart's DON GIOVANNI, Alfonso in COSI and Waldner in Richard Strauss' ARABELLA. In Europe, he sang at festivals in Spoleto, Aix-en-Provence and Glyndebourne.
Miss Caldwell remained his most stalwart champion. 'Donald's high level of musicianship and intelligence and his beautiful voice are attributes which make him the logical choice of a conductor', she told THE TIMESin 1975. 'His remarkable ability for physical characterization and his deep interest in its development make him the logical choice of a stage director. This fusion of musical and dramatic abilities sets him apart as one of the most extraordinary singing actors of our time'."
- John Rockwell, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 3 June, 1983
“Founded in 1947 by Thomas K. Scherman, the Little Orchestra Society was conceived as a diminutive counterweight to the huge symphony orchestras that were then the norm in American concert halls. Its mission was twofold: to present early music with an ensemble of historically appropriate size, and to make contemporary music known to a wider public.
In 1947 Scherman became assistant conductor of the National Opera in Mexico City; the same year, he organized in New York the Little Orchestra Society for the purposes of presenting new works, some of them specially commissioned, and reviving forgotten music of the past. [A little-known fact is that Leonie Rysanek made her New York City début at the invitation of Scherman who presented her in Verdi’s MACBETH, 26 March, 1958, with William Chapman, Donald Gramm and John McCollum and The Little Orchestra Society in Carnegie Hall. She would then repeat the role a year later in her Met Opera début].”
- Margalit Fox, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 3 April, 2011