V2648. NINETEENTH-CENTURY FRENCH BARITONES, Volume 1, incl. Léon Melchissédec, Jean Lassalle, Max Bouvet, and Maurice Renaud. 3-Marston 53024, recorded 1899-1913. Transfers by Ward Marston. Elaborate 63pp profusely illustrated Booklet w.Biographical Notes by Vincent Giroud & Luc Bourrousse, the foreword by Will Crutchfield. - 638335302423
“This is a very valuable and important set of recordings, lovingly restored by Ward Marston. It is not, however, a set for casual listening. These recordings of four historical French baritones range in date from 1899 to 1906, and they include wax cylinders as well as 78s. Even with Marston’s expert help, the sound is likely to be difficult for listeners not comfortable with historical material. You also have to get used to the practice from that time of the singers (or someone) announcing the contents of the recording before the music begins.
For any collector with a serious interest in the art of singing, however, this set is fairly close to essential. In a foreword written for Marston’s booklet accompanying these discs, Will Crutchfield writes that ‘the standard of elegance here is un-showy but very high’. That is a terrific one-sentence description of the singing here. These baritones are not singers with the powerful high notes of a Titta Ruffo or Pasquale Amato. What they have to offer is an even emission of tone throughout their ranges, tone that retained its core at all dynamic levels. They seem to have had no trouble with high notes; one hears no sign of strain in the upper registers.
Léon Melchissédec (1843–1925) occupies the first disc in the set. His career began in 1866; he retired in 1921, singing concerts rather than staged operas in the later years of this career. Melchissédec is surprisingly effective in excerpts from RIGOLETTO and UN BALLO IN MASCHERA, particularly because he was over sixty at that time. He also contributes vital performances of ‘La Marseillaise’ and a firmly shaped reading of ‘Sois immobile’ from GUILLAUME TELL.
Jean Lassalle (1847–1909) demonstrates genuine artistry in the legato line of Massenet’s ‘Chant provençal’, and Martini’s ‘Plaisir d’amour’, along with a strong sense of style in ‘Deh vieni alla finestra’ from DON GIOVANNI (in French). There are two recordings of this, each sung seductively. It is the evenness of tonal emission, however, in Wolfram’s ‘Song to the Evening Star’ from TANNHÄUSER that really impresses.
Max Bouvet (1854–1943) was a name completely unknown to me, but he took my breath away with his vocal control in ‘Ah! Mon remords te venge from Meyerbeer’s LE PARDON DE PLÖERMEL, easily floating up to lovely soft high notes. Bouvet had a wide repertoire, including Alberich in Wagner’s RING cycle, and he sang alongside Chaliapin in Anton Rubinstein’s THE DEMON. His recordings show a forceful dramatic personality along with an impeccable legato. Bouvet’s ability to sustain a line comes through in his recording of Wolfram’s aria.
Perhaps the finest singing in the set comes from Maurice Renaud (1861–1933), including what Marston claims is a first-ever modern release of his 1903 Pathé cylinders. It is true that the low notes in Bizet’s ‘Toréador Song’ are not well supported and sound even a touch out of tune. But the high notes are glorious, and Renaud clearly enjoyed showing them off. The sheer beauty of his voice comes through the ancient recordings, and his phrasing is masterly. He perfectly shapes the line in Gounod’s song, ‘Le soir’, and his version of Wolfram’s aria, despite considerable surface noise, is even more beautiful than Bouvet’s. Also his elegance and fluidity of line are a major asset in ‘Lénor, viens, j’abandonne Dieu’ from Donizetti’s LA FAVORITE.
The set concludes with two tracks identified as ‘alleged’ recordings by Jean-Baptiste Faure (1830–1914). As a legendary singer who retired from the stage in 1886, there have long been rumors that Faure made two recordings after his retirement. Marston includes both, but the notes cast considerable doubt on the authenticity of the first, the same aria from LA FAVORITE sung so beautifully by Renaud. It is definitely either the singing of a reasonably good amateur or a very faded professional. The second recording, of Adolphe Adam’s ‘Cantique de Noël’, could possibly be Faure, but at this point there is no way of being sure.
This set should be required teaching material in the voice departments of conservatories, and it will provide hours of fascinating listening to those who, like me, are keenly interested in the evolution of vocal style. The superb notes by Luc Bourrousse, the foreword by Crutchfield, and additional notes by Marston add up to a typically splendid product from this label. Essential for those seriously interested in French operatic performance tradition.”
- Henry Fogel, FANFARE