Gloire immortelle!
Grandes oeuvres patriotiques
Marie-Laure Garnier (soprano), Sébastien Guèze (tenor)
Choeur de l’Armée francaise, Choeur de l’Opéra Royal de Versailles, Choeur Rameau
Orchestre Symphonique de La Garde Républicaine/Hervé Niquet
rec. 2022, Opéra Royal de Versailles, Versailles, France
Includes French texts and English translations
Château de Versailles Spectacles CVS100 [62]

This bright and breezy recording came as something of a surprise to me. I had initially thought that it would be a recording of music from the revolution era. The surprise turned out to be that half of the music here are well-known orchestral excerpts (mostly derived from operas) that seem to inspire national pride among the French people. Certainly I did not expect to encounter the excerpts from Carmen and Les Troyens.

Among the more patriotic selections are a stirring rendition of Méhul’s Le chant du Départ; a revolutionary hymn for chorus and orchestra in seven stanzas. According to the booklet notes it was the preferred French anthem during the Napoleonic Empire because the Emperor himself preferred it over La Marseillaise. Another piece by Méhul is the overture from his failed opera of 1797, Le Jeune Henri. An opera about the exploits of the young Henry IV was not to the tastes of the public of the Directoire-era. However, the Overture with its repeated hunting-horn calls became popular under the name La chasse du Jeune Henri. Niquet and the military orchestra give an enthusiastic and exciting performance of it.

Berlioz was apparently inspired by Méhul’s Overture when he came to create his symphonic ode The Royal hunt and storm for his grand opera Les Troyens. Hearing these two works together on the same CD one can see where the Méhul was a starting point for Berlioz, but also how much further he developed his themes than they are in Méhul’s Overture. Here Niquet and the orchestra and combined choruses offer a no-holds-barred performance which makes me long to hear Niquet tackle the full opera with a completely French cast. If that ever does come to pass, hopefully it will not occur in the extremely dry acoustic of Versailles. The Berlioz piece is completely overwhelmed by the chorus because there doesn’t seem to be any way to make them sound off-stage, as they should be according to the score. In the student’s chorus from La Damnation de Faust, Niquet and his team treat the music with a similar piquancy and show that they have Berlioz’s tricky rhythms well in hand.

Among the less military selections the pieces from Bizet’s Carmen do belong on this program. While they are Spanish in theme they are French to the core. It is a real pleasure to hear the Choeur Rameau, a truly Gallic children’s chorus, singing the little march of the street urchins. The unfamiliar Dance Espagnole from the very rarely heard opera Le tribut de Zamora by Gounod features some nice display passages for woodwinds and castanets. That the finale of Bizet’s L’Arlésienne Suite made it onto this recording should come as no surprise to anyone. Niquet and his orchestra give it real gusto in a stirring performance.

The final tracks on the CD bring us back to the French military tradition. Planquette’s Le régiment de Sambre-et-Meuse is a fine stimulating piece, at least in Niquet’s recording. The booklet notes that the piece has a fairly chequered history in that it has been used to accompany such dishonorable historical events as the formal military degradation of Captain Alfred Dreyfus in 1895, which evolved into the national scandal of The Dreyfus Affair.

The final track of the CD leaves the place of honour to Berlioz’s arrangement of La Marseillaise. While the anthem is, in my own opinion, the most the most musically exciting anthem ever written. I do find that Berlioz’s setting of it wears out its welcome very quickly; all the more so on this recording because of the none too secure singing of it by Marie-Laure Garnier and Sébastien Guèze. Guèze’s voice has deteriorated remarkably since I last encountered him in the Glossa recording of Grétry’s Andromaque, also conducted by Hervé Niquet. Perhaps though I am biased when it comes to La Marseillaise; no version of it I have ever heard quite equals the overwhelming emotion Max Steiner’s arrangement for the film Casablanca. Whenever I listen to the soundtrack (Rhino Music R2 72911) I can always guarantee that I am going to shed a tear of two once Paul Henreid bursts into song.

Niquet and his team have put together an album that is ever interesting to listen to because of the great variety of music on offer here. Indeed the title track of the men’s chorus from Faust really benefits from being heard performed by a full military chorus and orchestra, who give it a raw, powerful performance. One which, quite rightly, lacks the homogenous sound that one would hear from an opera house chorus. The entire disc has been recorded with decisive clarity by the engineers. Only the Les Troyens excerpt suffers from the lack of atmosphere that continues to plague recordings from the Opéra Royal de Versailles, with its dry acoustic properties that continue to produce recordings with flat, one-dimensional sound.

Mike Parr

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Hector Berlioz
Chasse royale et Orage (from Les Troyens)
Student’s Chorus (from La Damnation de Faust)
Georges Bizet (1838-1875)
Avec la garde montante (from Carmen)
Les voici, voici la quadrille (from Carmen)
Prelude to Act I (from Carmen)
L’Arlesienne suite: Finale
Charles Gounod (1818-1893)
Gloire immortelle de nos aïeux (from Faust)
Danse espagnole (from Le Tribut de Zamora)
Étienne Nicolas Méhul (1763-1817)
La Chasse Du Jeune Henri (Overture to Le Jeune Henri)
Le chant du Départ
Robert Planquette (1848-1903)
Le regiment de Sambre-et-Meuse
Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle (1760-1836)
La Marseillaise (arr. Berlioz)