John Steane
Gramophone (UK)

An Indispensable CD Of Massenet Rarities

Whether it is good tactics or even good manners to appeal directly to the reader, I am never quite sure, but let's say that even if you have gone even so far as to glance at the title and take in this first sentence, it will be worth your while to put the record straight away on the shopping list. Most of the items are rarities, some unpublished, all attractive. The performances are excellent: Rosamund Illing is a soprano well-known over here, but never heard on record to better advantage, and Richard Bonynge's convinced advocacy and feeling for style constitute another guarantee of value. To this should be added a proviso. Everything is tuneful in the grand, late 19th century understanding of the word; also, I should think, to most palates it is sweet. I don't usually like such a succession of sweetmeats, and it does Massenet scant justice, for most of his scores provide a better balanced diet (and are all the more satisfying and effective on this account.) Still, for anyone in the least interested, it's not a record to miss.

The first seven tracks are all little known, though in recent years complete recordings have become available of the 'mystere' Eve (Ars Nova 2/99) and the 'Légende Sacreé' La Vierge (Koch Schwann, 5/92). Among the operas, Sappho will still be unfamiliar to most, and Ariane to all. The three excerpts here are arias for Ariadne herself, and include the final pages with the call of the Sirens, and a hauntingly plaintive B minor melody for the dying heroine, who descends into the sea holding a high A natural of heavenly softness, firm to the end. Amid these many cris de coeurs the sunny lilt of the infanta's alms giving song in Le Cid provides a welcome refreshment, and so would L'Ensoleillad's toast to youth and beauty in Chérubin, except that it lies a little too high for the singer who is otherwise so very well-suited.
These roles were written for a diverse range of singers, but the Australian soprano adapts easily and, except for a few slightly worn fortissimo high notes, sings most beautifully. The orchestra is recorded with vivid immediacy and makes the most of Massenet's imaginative scoring.

The booklet is generous and helpful in everything but the size of its print. Graham Johnson has interesting things to say about Massenet in general, and as a songwriter in particular. Rodney Milnes tells about how the composer has been undervalued outside France, especially by ourselves. "Britons, who since the time of Cromwell and his major-generals have always thought of art as something faintly indecent." The comma sees to it that the 'who' is thoroughly inclusive: we're all guilty.