“Chantons la révolution” (Let’s Sing the Revolution): works of Salieri, Paisiello, Rouget de Lisle, Balbastre, Méhul, Rodolphe Kreutzer, Gossec, Dussek. Ruggiero Raimondi, Ensemble Sagittarius, Mirella Giardelli (fortepiano), La Grande Ecurie et la Chambre dy Roy, Jean Claude Malgoire. CBS CDCBS 45607 (1989), barcode 5099704560724
Recorded 27-29 October 1988 in the Grande Salle de l’Unesco, Paris and 8 December 1988, Studio Davout
A particularly interesting “Marseillaise” doesn’t quite make up for the rest of this flawed recital
Originally posted on Amazon.com 13 January 2013
This might have been a more interesting and appealing disc than it turns out to be. It is one of those not so numerous ones that cropped up on the occasion of the celebreation of the bicentennial of the French revolution, and it was conceived by Jean-Claude Malgoire as an imaginary scene to have taken place on the stage of the Théâtre des Italiens (later to become the Opéra Comique) in 1794 (the Revolutionary “an II”). “A famous Italian singer (who may earlier have belonged to the troupe of the `Bouffons’), sings arias from French opéra comiques, accompanied by an orchestra in which Rodolphe Kreuzer is concertmaster. But in the enthusiasm and heated revolutionary atmosphere the public invades the stage and everybody starts singing the song then better known as `Chant de guerre’ than as `The Marseillaise’, and other revolutionary songs and hymns. Composer Claude Balbastre is in the attendance and starts improvising on the fortepiano a series of variations on the Marseillaise…” In fact the full compositional jetset (or should I say “stagecoach-set”) is present: Gossec, Dussek, Salieri, and they happen to have their scores with them.
You may or may not be convinced by the gimmick, but the recital is interesting for giving the opportunity to hear excerpts of rarely played operas, and of a few famous revolutionary songs and hymns (Méhul’s Chant du Départ, the popular songs “Ah ça ira” and “La Carmagnole” and the Marseillaise) in what I doubt are original or period orchestrations (the arrangements are not credited) but that sound close enough, with plenty of typical woodwind scoring. Although far from “authentic”, Malgoire’s Marseillaise deserves a special mention, as it differs in many ways from what we are accustomed to hearing these days on Bastille Day or on the soccer fields (the “official” orchestration of the Marseillaise played today dates from 1887). In fact it would have been worthwhile for Malgoire’s liner notes to explain exactly what he did with it and what sources he used. But no, he remains entirely silent about what’s really significant about his recording, and it is only after hours of research on the sources of the Marseillaise that it really dawned on me what was there.
So, Malgoire’s Marseillaise is remarkable, first, for using not the song’s melody as it came down to us and is sung on the soccer fields, but Rouget de Lisle’s original melody (transposed down a fourth to suit Raimondi’s basso voice), as it was published in Strasburg by the publisher Dannbach under the title “War Song for the Army of the Rhine”, shortly after its composition at the end of April 1792; it differs from the accepted version in a few melodic turns, that are striking when you know the song well for having sung it on the French soccer fields. Rouget’s song was immediately so successful that it led a life of its own, and within a few months acquired the melodic shape that we still know today. In fact, if Malgoire’s little fiction were to be taken seriously, when it reached Paris and was sung in the theatres there, it wasn’t anymore Rouget’s original, it was NOT anymore known as “Chant de guerre” but as the Air or the Song or the March or the Hymn of the Marseillais. But let us not be pedantic on that point, it is great to hear Rouget’s original, even a fourth down.
Malgoire further follows Rouget’s original in playing the curious little ritornello that ends the refrain in the Dannbach score and serves as a transition to the next verse. It curiously smacks of “opera comique” and is comically contradictory with the martial accents of the song, but it’s great to hear it, and makes it even more frustrating not to know who wrote Malgoire’s orchestration. Rouget’s original was never orchestrated back then, in fact the original score had been printed in limited number and soon became inaccessible (copies became known only in the mid-19th century), and the song travelled through the throats of those who sung it, before being notated and first printed as a simple melody, sometimes with added keyboard accompaniment.
Rouget wrote six stanzas, of which only the first is now sung on soccer fields, and today nobody knows the rest, or even knows that there is a rest. Raimondi sings verse 1, 2, 4 and 6 (the chorus joins in refrains 2 and 6), but after refrain 2 Malgoire intersperses Claude-Bénigne Balbatre’s Variations on la Marseilaise (played by Mirella Giardelli on fortepiano). That’s where following with the score (it is available online on the website of the International Music Scores Library Project) enhances appreciation: the upward 32nd-note run at 5:17 depicts the “the enemies running away”, and the ensuing crashing cluster, the “cannon”. If you’ve missed it, it repeats a few seconds later.
Malgoire repeats very much the same processes with “Ah ça ira”, starting with Balbastre’s version and seguing with Raimondi and chorus singing the song in an uncredited orchestration, sounding “period” enough. Balbastre not having written variations on “La Carmagnole”, there we get only the orchestrated song. None of this is entirely “authentic” or “period” but at least it is “reconstructed authentic”. It never happened, but it could have.
But as long as Malgoire was going to do a “Historically-informed” performance, he might have done it all the way. But not only is his version of Méhul’s “Chant du Départ” (also known as “the second Marseillaise” and indeed very similar to it in its martial bombast), like the Marseillaise, not sung sung complete, it is also very corrupt. The original song has 7 stanzas, followed by refrain sung by chorus, but unlike the Marsellaise each stanza is attributed to a different character and voice (and who the chorus is supposed to depict also changes, so the size and section of chorus should presumably change accordingly in each refrain): “A Representative of the people” (and chorus of warriors), a mother (chorus of mothers), two elderly men (chorus of elderly men) and so forth, a child, a wife, a young maiden, and finally three warriors followed by the concluding and complete chorus. Wouldn’t it have been great to do it as written? But no, I guess CBS needed the top billing of Raimondi, and what he sings is only stanzas 1, 3, 4 (there I can imagine a more childish timbre than Raimondi’s basso…) and 7. And truth is, it is more tedious that way than it would have been done as written – an impression confirmed by the version of Michel Plasson on “Révolution française”, EMI CDC 7 49470 2 (1988) -, because there is absolutely no variety of timbre, and the very essence of the music is that each of these stanzas (and the refrains) is the repetition of the previous one, with the very basic melodic invention rapidly wearing one’s patience. Raimondi and Malgloire’s sluggishness here doesn’t help either.
And I can’t say that Raimondi is much of an asset, either. His French accent isn’t so bad, but his articulation is thick and fuzzy, and in La Marseillaise and Le Chant du Départ he lacks enthusiasm – that’s not a revolutionnairy Sans Culotte marching off to war or parading with an aristocrat’s head on a pike, but one that’s returned from the Napoleonic wars, all illusions shattered, and is merely going through the motions. He’s pretty awful even in the aria “Tout le monde m’abandonne” (“everybody is forsaking me”) from Paisiello’s opera “Il re Teodoro”, lacking articulation and elegance; the aria itself is sentimental and whining. The opera was originally written in Italian and was played for Queen Marie-Antoine, in Versailles, in the translation of a monsieur Moline; it is prosodically inept, full of accents falling in the wrong place. Raimondi is much more convincing in “Ah ça ira” and “La Carmagnole”, sounding much more convinced, with a saucy and mischievous undertone that is irresistible.
Actor Yves Gourvil, who announces the various episodes of Dussek’s “Tableau of the last moments and death of Marie-Antoinette” (accompanied by fortepiano alone) is certainly no top billing, even in France – so did they really need to choose an actor with a lisp, and such a high-pitched and uningratiating vocal timbre? The music itself is descriptive and graphic and offers little musical interest, and its main interest really is of being a striking example of typical music for a silent movie, more than a century before silent movies were invented. Among the opera numbers, the lugubrious Chorus of Slaves from Salieri’s Tarare (track 11), with its ominious string and timpani tremolando, stands out. The Act II final chorus (track 3) at least is stylistically consistent with the Marseillaise and Chant du depart: martial, hollow and bombastic. In the two overtures – to Salieri’s Tarare and Kreuzer’s Paul et Virginie, Malgoire’s ensemble, La Grande Ecurie et la Chambre du Roi, sounds zestful, but underpowered – but after all, this is probably how it sounded back then. There are some fine things in Kreutzer’s Overture, a beautiful slow introduction evoking something like a sunrise, in which Beethoven could have found inspiration for his Pastorale, and more pre-Beethoven accents in the more muscular moments of the Allegro.
Gossec’s short but impressive “Marche lugubre” for winds and percussion was written in 1790 and used at each significant funeral during the revolutionary era, and was the prototype and model of all the Revolutionary funeral marches that will culminate in Berlioz’ Symphonie funèbre et triomphale. No chance here that Malgoire uses the original orchestration, since it called not only for “serpents”, the predecessor of the tuba, used to double and reinforce the bassoon, but also for three “tuba corva”, the revolutionary revival of the antique “cornu”, an ancient Roman brass instrument about 3 meters long in the shape of a letter G. More likely he uses Désiré Dondeyne’s modern one. From information I’ve gathered on the net the wind orchestra assembled by Gossec in some of those occasions numbered over a hundred players; Malgoire’s restitution doesn’t come near the impact it must have made back then. In fact, Malgoire’s reading doesn’t come near the impact of John Wallace’s on Nimbus Nimbus NI 5175 (1989), barcodes 083603517526 or 0710357517525 (where it is an appropriate filler to Berlioz’ Symphonie funèbre et triomphale): Malgoire plays the burdened and funeral, Wallace plays the blasting and devastating. And even in the burdened and funeral, he is one-upped by Claude Pichaureau on Erato’s “Les Grands Hymnes Revolutionnaires”, 2292-45006-2 (1990). Gossec’s use of the tam-tam was a great novelty back in the early 1790s, that greatly impressed the audiences; as played by Malgoire hardly anybody would have heard it.
No text for the choruses of Salieri’s Tarare – too bad, the chorus is not always comprehensible especially in the martial and loud Act II chorus. No translations at all. Although Malgoire’s Marseillaise is interesting, the recital as a whole is frustrating. Plasson’s disc is a better introduction to the music of the French Revolution, and although his Marseillaise is played in Berlioz’ orchestration from 1830, it offers not just all six Rouget’s stanzas, but even the 7th, non-Rouget stanza known as “the children’s stanza” (it is sung by solo child and children’s choir), that was added in October 1792 and became part of the canon. In Chant du Départ, he leaves out the two stanzas of the elderly men and the wives, but at least the others are sung with the voices of the characters, bringing in a welcome diversity, and he is always more dynamic than Malgoire.