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The Art of Janine Micheau
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913 – 1976)
Les Illuminations, Op. 18 [20:49]
Maurice RAVEL (1875 – 1937)
Shéhérazade [14:51]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862 – 1918)
La Damoiselle élue [21:31]
Emmanuel CHABRIER (1841 – 1894)
Ode à la musique [8:41]
Le Roi malgré lui [7:40]
Janine Micheau (soprano)
Janine Collard (mezzo-soprano)
Jean Mollien (tenor)
Orchestre des Concerts Lamoureux/Paul Sacher (Britten and Ravel)
Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire/Jean Fournet (Debussy, Chabrier)
Chorale Élisabeth Brasseur
rec. Paris, June 1952 (Debussy and Chabrier), unknown (Britten and Ravel)
No texts enclosed. Mono
ELOQUENCE 482 4769 [74:04]

Janine Micheau was since her Opéra-Comique début in 1933 a leading soprano in French repertoire for several decades and also had an important international career, which took her to many of the big houses in Europe and the Americas. As so many of her generation she was hampered by the war but was busy in France during the German occupation. I remember her primarily for the recordings of Carmen (under Beecham) and Les pêcheurs de perles (under Dervaux) towards the end of the 1950s. In both operas she sang opposite Nicolai Gedda. She was then in her mid-forties and may have lost something of her freshness, but sampling the two recordings for this review I could only establish that my memory had betrayed me: her singing was just as youthful as on the present recordings, made some 6 – 7 years earlier (the documentation only gives the dates for Debussy and Chabrier sessions: June 1952). It is, by the way, interesting to see that John Culshaw, fairly early in his career, was the producer of that record, which was issued as Decca LXT in November 1952.

Somewhat surprisingly Janine Micheau also recorded Benjamin Britten’s Les Illuminations, which early became Peter Pears’ territory. But the cycle was written with soprano Sophie Wyss in mind, she premiered it in January 1940 and she also received the overall dedication, even though some individual songs were dedicated to Pears. Wyss was a lyrical soprano, obviously similar to Ms Micheau’s, and so it seemed logical for Decca to engage her for the project. But what was the reason? Pears recorded the cycle in November 1953, also for Decca. Did the company want both versions for completeness? Anyway, having known the songs for many years in Pears’ two recordings – he re-recorded them in stereo in the 1960s with Britten conducting – they are for me closely associated with the tenor’s highly individual – some would say idiosyncratic – sounds. Hearing them with a beautiful glittering soprano voice brings a new dimension to them, lighter and brighter, closer to sunrise, whereas Pears’ plaintive tones are pointing towards sundown. Both approaches may be valid, but personally I find the effortless Janine Micheau much more to my taste – as I also did back in the LP-era when I heard Les Illuminations with Swedish soprano Margareta Hallin.

The Oriental seasoning of Ravel’s Sheherazade is well brought out in spite of the mono recording, even though aural picture is rather flat. In fact the sound reproduction is surprisingly good. I have to say that Asia, the longest and most complex of the three songs, is exceptionally well performed. Jeanne Micheau’s singing at the climax produces goose-pimples.

‘Very sensual and decadent’ wrote critic Charles Darcours in Le Figaro after the premiere of La Damoiselle élue on 8 April 1893. Sensual music, no doubt, but decadent? We must remember though that this verdict was worded almost 125 years ago. Today we can enjoy the work for its lush harmonies, the beauty of the choral writing and the dreamy orchestration – and of course the solo singing. Janine Micheau hovers over the orchestra with her cantilenas – achingly beautiful. The brief contribution of mezzo-soprano Janine Collard is also worthy of the occasion. Decadent? At least Franck, Chausson and d’Indy all loved it.

As in the Debussy piece there is a women’s chorus also in Chabrier’s Ode à la musique. The music is less perfumed than Debussy’s but just as attractive. It’s hardly over-recorded – at least I couldn’t find another recording on my shelves – but it is well worth hearing. And Janine Micheau sings gloriously!

The two excerpts from Chabrier’s opera Le Roi malgré lui from 1887 has never really become part of the standard repertoire, but the two excerpts recorded here are certainly entertaining. The first is a sextet of slaves with Janine Micheau as the seventh. The second finds her on her own but a certain Comte de Nangis (Jean Mollien) is briefly heard. Janine Micheau’s coloratura excursions almost make you feel dizzy!

All in all this is a highly attractive disc with one of the best – and unfortunately unfairly forgotten – lyric sopranos of a couple of generations ago.

Göran Forsling


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