Notes and Editorial Reviews
Régine Crespin was for a long period, from the late 1950s until the mid-1970s, one of the leading sopranos in the world, and the greatest dramatic French soprano after WW2. She had a wide repertoire, encompassing besides French roles, Italian and German, including such roles as Sieglinde in Die Walküre and the Feldmarschallin in Der Rosenkavalier. These two roles she recorded complete with Solti for Decca in the sixties – and also Brünnhilde in Die Walküre with Karajan for DG – in the same period. A short glimpse of her Sieglinde is included in the present box, which gives on the whole a fair picture of her versatility. It was issued to coincide with the tenth anniversary of her death, and Warner Classics have dug deep
in their available archives and also managed publish several recordings courtesy of Decca – the company with which she had the closest relations during her heydays. Besides the two works with Solti, mentioned above, there is also a complete recording of Massenet’s Don Quichotte, a highlights disc with scenes from Der Rosenkavalier, set down a few years before the complete set, and a 2 LP-set titled Prima Donna in Paris from the early 1970s, which is available as a download. Moreover she also recorded for CBS Offenbach’s La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein, which doesn’t seem to be available at the moment, and a coupling of Ravel and Satie songs which was reissued in 2016. One could have wished that even more would have been preserved, but what is presented in this box is a true goldmine, and readers hitherto unfamiliar with this marvellous singer are in for a real treat that can, and should, be returned to time and again. Of the great sopranos born in the 1920s, hers was arguably the sweetest and most beautiful voice of them all, los Angeles, Tebaldi and Price not forgotten.
These ten CDs, most of them strict reissues of the original LP contents, but in some cases amended with material issued on other discs – and with the original LP-covers preserved – are presented roughly in chronological order and thus it is easy to follow her development. On the last two discs are mopped up excerpts from various complete works and some highlights discs.
Starting with CD 1, recorded in mono in 1958, we meet a singer having just turned 30, and her voice has a lightness and youthful timbre that is irresistible. Mathilde’s Sombre forêt from Guillaume Tell is a charming calling-card, so beautifully vocalized, so unforced and with exquisite pianissimos. D’amor sull’ali rosee from Il trovatore is also sung with all the nuances, slow but will spell-binding rubatos and a final pianissimo that is other-worldly. The hushed delivery of the Willow Song and Ave Maria from Otello has the same superb lyrical qualities but she has the power for the sudden dramatic outburst, Ah! Emilia, Emilia, addio! so gloriously executed. Ave Maria is a very private prayer: Prega per chi, adorando, si prostra. The two arias from Tannhäuser remind us that she very early sang at Bayreuth to great acclaim. Dich, teure Halle, revealing that she had a big dramatic voice, absolutely steady and with great warmth, Elisabeth’s Prayer, Allmächt’ge Jungfrau, is inward and peaceful. She also sings a glorious D’amour, l’ardente flame from Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust and the beautiful aria from Gounod’s Sapho. The opera seldom performed today but the aria is well worth hearing, sweet but not treacly. In Alceste’s Divinités du Styx she may not have all-embracing intensity of Callas, but nor has she the throatiness and the distorted wobble – and there is no lack of power. The sound is not in the demonstration class but fully acceptable.
On CD 2, recorded in excellent stereo three years later, she returns to Wagner, and this disc, awarded “Grand Prix de Disque de l’Académie du Disque Français” is one of her greatest. Few have sung the Wesendonck songs with such delicacy, such dreamy eloquence, such beauty. This disc, in LP format was my introduction to the song cycle and the excerpts from Lohengrin, Parsifal and Die Walküre have been faithful companions ever since. If I were forced to choose just one of these discs, this would be the one – in keen competition with another, which I will come back to before long.
CD 3 is an all-French recital, original recorded by Decca Records France. Of Gounod’s many operas La Reine de Saba is one of many that disappeared after initial successes. But Balkis’s cavatine is worth hearing. There is beauty a-plenty and few have sung it better. Obviously Régine Crespin wasn’t fully satisfied with the Sapho aria in her first recording, and admittedly there is some more drama in this remake, but the greatest improvement is the presence of the orchestra. Here it is a lot more impressive.
Ernest Reyer’s Sigurd is based on the Nibelungenlied, like Wagner’s Ring and Sigurd is of course Siegfried. The opera, had initial problems before it could be premiered in 1884, but then it had quite a success in many places including the US. And it has been revived also after WW2, in 1973 also by ORTF, (French Radio) conducted by Manuel Rosenthal, a performance that was recorded. Brunehilde’s aria is a beautiful piece and beautifully sung with impeccable legato. Just for the record, Sigurd’s aria Esprits, gardiens de ces lieux vénérés was recorded just a couple of years ago by Roberto Alagna.
Halévy’s La Juive has fared even better and was revived several time during the 1990s and 2000s in Vienna, New York, Venice, Paris and several other places – as recently as 2014 in Gothenburg. The tenor role Eléazar was famously the last new role Enrico Caruso added to his repertoire and also the very last role he sang on stage. He also recorded the famous aria Rachel! Quand du seigneur. Rachel herself has an aria that is enjoyable, especially when sung with such complete beauty as here. Marguerite’s Il était un roi de Thulé is sung simply and with girlish tone and Meyrem’s aria from Massenet’s little known Marie-Magdeleine is another beautiful thing, sung with warmth and brilliance. One of her roles at the Met was Charlotte in Werther, and the intense and sensitive Letter Scene, recorded here is of the kind that one wishes she had recorded it complete.
CD 4, “Italian Operatic Arias”, also a Decca recording, was set down in London’s Kingsway Hall in 1963 with Edward Downes conducting. Leonora’s first act Tacea la note and subsequent cabaletta from Il trovatore, is glorious and a fine follow-up of the fourth act aria, recorded on CD 1. Amelia’s sorrowful aria from act III of Un ballo in maschera is deeply touching, and the uncredited cello introduction beautifully sets the mood for her soliloquy. The Willow Song and Ave Maria from Otello was also on CD 1 but here in much fuller sound and a more expansive reading, doesn’t put the previous recording in the shadow, but there is more maturity here. She has the dramatic flair for the opening of La Gioconda’s Suicidio! but her reading after that focuses more on contemplation and is really touching. The Cavalleria aria I magnificent, her Butterfly is moving and Boito’s L’altra notte is so sensitive.
CD 5 is the other disc I reluctantly would relinquish, but fortunately I already have it in another incarnation. The coupling of Ravel’s atmospheric Shéhérazade and Berlioz Les nuits d’été has been, since the issue of the Decca recording in 1963, the benchmark recording for many lovers of French songs. Others have challenged it, Janet Baker, for instance, but none has surpassed it so far. The rapport between Crespin and conductor Ernest Ansermet is on the same wavelength as Janet Baker’s with John Barbirolli in the legendary Mahler recordings from the sixties. My LP was worn out long before it was transferred to CD and till this very day it has been one of my desert-island-discs. Those still unfamiliar with it will be in raptures over it.
The Verdi recital on CD 6 was recorded in September 1963 and May 1965 with Georges Prêtre conducting. The two of them collaborated several times in recording studios with equally good results. The first of Amelia’s two arias in Un ballo in maschera is bleak and frightening, standing there alone in the darkness at the gallows hill outside Stockholm – or Boston as it probably still was in the 60s. One senses her divided feelings while waiting for the King – or Governor in Boston: her feelings are strong, but basically Amelia is a mild character. Lady Macbeth is certainly a quite different character – and we hear that. Formidable, almost ghost-like. These are aurally two very different personalities and Crespin differentiates them skilfully. Eboli in Don Carlo may not be a close relative of Lady Macbeth’s, but they are not unlike each other. Crespin gives her two faces: the black, jealous, power-hungry with ominous chest-notes and the loving woman. Elisabetta is milder in character with a bright upper register. Aïda is here a light character with silvery voice and deeply in love with Radamès. This is a Verdi programme that is worth studying in detail.
On the following two CDs we leave the world of opera and explore Régine Crespin’s oeuvre in her capacity of interpreter of art songs. CD 7 opens with Schumann’s wonderful song cycle Liederkreis Op. 39, 12 settings of poems by Josef von Eichendorff. No one can deny that her singing is beautiful throughout the cycle, it is careful and there’s probably the rub. It is too careful, too vapid. It lacks life, coming from a deeper understanding of the words – or rather the willingness to make the words tell. It goes against the grain for me to write off these readings, but they lack something important: temperament. OK, there is some in Schöne Fremde but a lot of this is empty. Tempos also tend to drag. She takes for instance 3:10 to come through Auf einer Burg, which is extremely slow. I checked at random seven other recordings in my collection, where the fastest took 2:19 and the slowest – interesting no doubt, Fischer-Dieskau – arrived at 3:05, but with a verbal acuity that made it sound much more concentrated.
The French songs are a totally different affair. She sings the Fauré songs with the same beauty of tone as the Schumann, but here there is a lot more life in the reading, even though they are sung with a lot of restraint. The two Canteloube songs are the highlights of the whole recital, lively and temperamental and sung with a humoristic twist. Roussel and the little known Sauguet are also wonderfully sung, the latter’s Berceuse créole a particularly lovely song.
The six songs by the extremely self-critical Henri Duparc – he destroyed most of his compositions and his total oeuvre of melodies is a mere 17 songs – were recorded six years later, and the passing of time reveals a slight decline in vocal quality: the vibrato has become a little wider and the creamy tones don’t come as naturally as before. But the expressivity is even more pronounced. This is exactly what I found when buying the album “Prima Donna in Paris”, recorded at about the same time. Her personality has become even stronger than before which more than compensates for the slight decline. These six songs are representative for the high level of inspiration in Duparc’s works.
It should be noted that the original LP, CVA 910, containing tracks 1 – 21, was published in 1966, but in 1972 all the French songs plus the then newly recorded were published under the title Mélodies françaises, which seems to confirm that Crespin or the record company wasn’t entirely satisfied with the Schumann cycle. Schumann’s five settings of Queen Maria Stuart’s poems, recorded for Decca in 1967, and opening CD 8, show a quite different insight than the Liederkreis from the year before. Her voice is still in mint condition and possibly the dramatic contents of the poems attracted her theatrical instinct. There is light and shade here and her readings breathe empathy. Also the Hugo Wolf songs seem closer to her heart. His songs are not easy to bring off, but she has the right approach and I don’t mind that she sings them really beautifully. Der Gärtner is charming, Ich hab’ in Penna mercurial, and Verschwiegene Liebe really enticingly sung.
Debussy’s Trois chansons de Bilitis and Poulenc’s songs that occupy the rest of this disc, were fillers to the CD reissue of Crespin’s Les nuits dété and Shéhérazade some years ago, and nowadays I know them like my own pocket. In particular the Poulenc group is superb in every respect. Régine Crespin must have felt a special affinity for this composer and his very special world.
CD 9 occupies excerpts from two highlights discs and two complete recordings. Berlioz’s music was very close to Régine Crespin’s heart and it is a pity that she never got the opportunity to record the monumental Les Troyens complete. That would however have involved a problem: which of the two great female roles should she choose? When she recorded excerpts from the opera in 1965, a handful years before Colin Davis’s epoch-making first complete recording, this was easily solved: she sang both! And how she sings Cassandra …! And how she sings Didon …! Didon’s Adieu, fière cite is masterly sung. No wonder this LP became a benchmark recording, and remained so even after the Davis set was issued. Salomé in Massenet’s Hérodiade is another dream role for a dramatic soprano and, recorded in 1963, this is really wonderful singing. Listen to Il est doux, il est bon – what glow, what brilliance! In Calmez donc vos fureurs we also meet tenor Albert Lance, Australian of birth but from the late 1950s one of the leading French tenors. Here he is truly heroic.
The contrast with Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites is striking – from heart-on-the-sleeve passion to the calmness of the new prioress in Poulenc’s tragic opera from 1957. The opera was premiered at La Scala in Milan in January 1957 with the French premiere following suite in June of the same year. Régine Crespin was the prioress at the premiere and also took part in the recording that was set down in January the following year. This is in other words the earliest recording with her in this box, and it reveals an already mature artist. The two excerpts from Offenbach’s La Vie parisienne were recorded eighteen years later, but there is no mistaking the girlish and charming singing and acting of a still young singer, although she was approaching fifty.
On the last disc we are treated to a real substantial highlight, 40 minutes, from Tosca, sung in French in 1960. Crespin is, as expected, a wonderful Tosca, both noble and warm, but she also shows her mettle as red-blooded and temperamental artist. Paul Finel is an adequate Cavaradossi and we also hear Jacques Hivert as a youthful and less burlesque sacristan than we usually hear. René Bianco is a light-voiced lyrical Scarpia, less demonic than the standard chief of police. When Crespin sings Vissi d’arte, it is so enthralling that time stands still and she is dramatic and amorous in the long scene from the last act, cut off before the execution. Here Paul Finel also delivers a nuanced and sensitive O dolci mani.
Three solos from the 1974 Carmen and three utterly charming arias from La Périchole further fill out the picture of this many-sided artist before three interesting bonus tracks. The first is from the original sound track of Dites-le avec des fleurs with music by Claude Bolling. Régine Crespin is rather backwardly recorded and often disappears behind the orchestra, but the music is atmospheric. And, finally, two songs privately recorded: La Tantina de Burgos in a rather Brecht-influenced idiom, sung with Gisela May like expressivity, and Hector where she is an idiomatic chanteuse. I suspect that these are fairly late recordings and they no doubt add a further dimension to the art of Régine Crespin.
Having spent two days wallowing in this various music and this marvellous voice I still feel I want to play the whole box once again. Readers who follow my advice: Buy this box at once!, should maybe ration the listening to a couple of discs at a time.
– MusicWeb International (Göran Forsling) Read less
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