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Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)
La terre promise (1897)
Hérodiade (1881): Charme des jours passés: Ne pouvant réprimer les élans
Le Cid (1885): Ô souverain, ô juge, ô père!
Thaïs (1898): O messager de Dieu - Baigne d’eau mes mains
Le jongleur de Notre Dame (1902): La Vierge entend fort bien
Sabine Revault d’Allonnes (soprano) Patrick Garayt (tenor) Jean-Louis Serre (baritone), Cologne Oratorio Choir, Elisabeth Brasseur Choir, Ensemble Chorala Contretemps, Cernay-la-Ville Choir, Versailles Polyphonic Ensemble, Guy Touvron Brass
French Oratorio Choir and Orchestra/Jean-Pierre lo Ré
rec. Église de la Trinité, Paris, 12 May 2012
EROL ER200040 [107.00] 

In his book History of the Oratorio published in 2000, Howard Smith states that “Massenet’s last oratorio stands at the pinnacle of nineteenth century French works in this genre” and “the most worthy of special attention.” However it has never previously been recorded, probably because the forces demanded are massive; here we have, in addition to three soloists, no fewer than six combined choirs, a brass ensemble to play the trumpets which brings down the walls of Jericho, a huge orchestra including quadruple woodwind (two English horns and two bass clarinets) and two pairs each of timpani, side drums and cymbals. The forces on this DVD were assembled to commemorate the anniversary of Massenet’s death in 2012, and given the expense involved I suppose it is very unlikely that we are going to get another recording soon; so all lovers of Massenet, especially in his grandiose mood (think Esclarmonde), will have to have this release.
 
All the same it would not be hard to imagine a better performance than this. In the first place Massenet uses his huge choral forces in a series of fugues - and it would be safe to say that contrapuntal writing was never his strongest suit. In the resonant and echoing acoustic of this massive basilica the result is reduced to a tonal mush in which it is often difficult to distinguish individual lines. You can see the conductor working hard to enthuse his performers, but the orchestral players often look bored and the choirs are clearly having difficulty co-ordinating their efforts. Nor are Massenet’s exorbitant and specific demands fully complied with: he asks for at least four harps for church performance, but here we have to make do with two. Their insistent arpeggios which accompany Massenet’s imitation of Hebrew chanting in Part One - in which he anticipates Elgar in The Apostles - are insufficiently forceful.
 
The First Part depicts the Israelites in the wilderness, and their alliance with the Moabites. The music at the beginning recalls that for the monks in Thaïs from a couple of years before, but rises to a more grandiose climax. The choristers don’t sound very fierce when they sing about having heard God “in the midst of the fire”. It is not until the antiphonal chanting later on that they seem to get the bit between their teeth … and the acoustic blurs some of their melismatic lines.
 
It is not indeed until the second part, which depicts the fall of Jericho, that the music rises above a turgid religiosity to produce some real drama. It begins unpromisingly with a jogging little fugue theme clearly modelled closely on Mendelssohn’s opening to Elijah, but - after rather too long - builds up a good head of steam. In this it is aided by some very Berliozian touches: wailing woodwind figures, stentorian brass chords and rolls on two sets of timpani. The influence of Berlioz can also be felt in the march around the walls of Jericho, with the isolated group of seven trumpets in the gallery set against the timpani duet on stage. Again one would like more harps, and the surging principal string melody should surely sound much more forceful and ‘present’ than it does here. The march ends with the chorus delivering a “terrible, agonised, powerful and prolonged cry”. The unpitched howl from the choir here - albeit rather too well-mannered, despite encouragement from the conductor - is a truly original effect leading to a barbaric chorus of rejoicing that almost anticipates Walton is Belshazzar’s Feast. This is one of Massenet’s very greatest inspirations, unexpected in this context.
 
After that the third part can afford to be more relaxed, and indeed begins with a prelude entitled Pastorale. There then follows a gentle choral meditation which builds to a sonorous climax. There’s then a solo for the soprano accompanied by the organ and placed above and behind the massed forces on the space below. The organ then suddenly erupts with grandiose chords which clearly show the influence of Berlioz’s Te Deum. The movement then degenerates into a somewhat untidy fugue which is clearly intended to bring things to a sonorous conclusion but here just sounds rather confused.
 
Of the three soloists, Sabine Revault d’Allonnes is, by a considerable margin, the best. I loved her work on a disc of Massenet mélodies last year (review), and she has a real feeling for the style of the composer as well as a stupendously radiant voice. Garayt is fine and indeed heroic in his lower and middle registers, but there is a distinct sign of strain in the upper reaches of his voice as he tries to impose a basically verismo style onto Massenet’s more sweetly lyrical lines. Serre’s smooth tones are more pleasant to listen to, but he does not give evidence of much involvement with the text: “Hear ye, Israel,” he proclaims, but his Ecoutez sounds almost apologetic, as if he hesitates to trouble them.
 
To make up the full length of the concert, we are given a supplement consisting of five excerpts from Massenet operas, described here as “the sacred in the operas of Jules Massenet” - although one might take leave to doubt this description in the case of the items from Thaïs and Le jongleur de Notre Dame, neither of which depict religion in a very positive light. The soloists here reflect their work in the oratorio: Serre pleasant but rather bland, Garayt showing decided signs of strain in the upper register, and d’Allonnes soaring into Massenet’s melodies with all the considerable grace and beauty at her command. She even inspires Serre to a more positive show of emotion in the aria and duet from Thaïs. Presumably to reflect the arrangements at the original concert, these operatic excepts rather inconveniently precede the performance of the oratorio. At least it allows d’Allonnes to get proceedings off to a rousing start.
 
This issue is clearly intended for an exclusively French market: the thirteen pages of the booklet (including the complete texts) are in that language alone, with no translations whatsoever. The invaluable ISMLP site contains not only a full score (a massive file to download) but also three copies of the vocal score but none of these contain any translations. Nor are there any subtitles provided: not altogether the best manner in which to commemorate the death of the composer. To read the French text is not difficult - most of the phrases anyway are familiar from Biblical sources - but one also suspects the lingering influence of the official Gaullist insistence from the 1960s that everybody in the world should be made to speak the French language, especially Anglo-Saxons. Nevertheless ‘Massenetistes’ - to quote Rodney Milnes’ delightfully manufactured word - will have to have this DVD for the sake of the oratorio The promised land. It has some very fine and original things in it even if the inspiration is uneven. Saint-Saëns had a go at an oratorio on the same subject some fifteen years later for the Three Choirs Festival - Richard Hickox gave a broadcast performance of it in 2001 - but this Massenet work is generally far superior to that rather academic score.
 
Paul Corfield Godfrey  

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