Review of nine recordings of the Minuit Chretiensby Eric Légault
/ December 1, 2014
(1996, revised 2014)
There are numerous recordings of Adam’s Cantique de Noël (known in English as O Holy Night), in many languages and styles. We have reviewed nine recordings made by opera singers in French.
Enrico Caruso (1873-1921), the tenors’ Tenor, the first star of the phonograph, sang on all the great stages of the world, even in Montréal’s Mount Royal Arena in 1920. The sound is relatively good for a recording made in 1916. Although he cracks slightly in the last word, the singer’s reputation is confirmed by his blended registers and control of breath and volume. His French is pretty good, but the musical style is not very French: the glissandi galore make it sound like a barcarolle. He does the usual gruppetti and appoggiaturas; he even does one on “CHRÉ-tiens”, which is neither good nor bad, but surprising, especially since it’s at the beginning of the song. The tone is rather soft and intimate. The orchestral accompaniment is discreet; there is no chorus and no repeat.
Rodolphe Plamondon (Montréal, 1876-1940) was the first Canadian tenor to sing at the Paris Opera. The recording (1924 Starr 18005; reissued on Les Grandes Voix du Canada, Analekta) has more surface noise than the Caruso (1916). He has a nice voice, but he has a quick vibrato reminiscent of Fernando De Lucia. He sings only stanza 1 but does the high B-flat. His low notes are weak and sometimes sharp. He makes fewer glissandi than Caruso, but he still has one foot in the gondola. He underscores heavily the comma in “Minuit, Chrétiens”. He is accompanied by pianist Rex Battle and by an unidentified violist who provides an original but sometimes overpowering counter-melody.
The French tenor Georges Thill (1897-1984) had a distinguished career in France and recorded many 78 rpm’s. This recording (1932; Col LFX 275) is one of the best versions vocally: great ease in the high notes and perfect pronunciation. The tone is enthusiastic and powerful. He finds an original compromise for the “Chrétiens” ornament, sliding up during the “chré”. He sings “ceux qu’enchaînait le fer” without dropping down one octave. He is accompanied by a discrete orchestra, a great organ, church bells and a choir, all under Armand Bernard’s baton. The pace is cheerful; there is no pause between phrases, or even between the two stanzas. The choir sings the repeat of the “Peuple à genoux”, and mumbles a few “Noël” at the end; their volume is low (except for one soprano) and the text is barely intelligible.
Raoul Jobin (1906-1974), one of our most famous tenors, sang at the Paris Opera, the Opéra-Comique and the Metropolitan. In his recording (1945, RCA), the voice is powerful and nervous, his diction is natural and clear. His R’s are the voiced uvular fricative of modern spoken French, as opposed to the Italianate rolled R of the great majority of singers, but they are not merely voiced, they are sung ringingly. The vowels are very open (sometimes too much so: “People à genâ”). He never sings “NoÉl” tightly like other tenors; it is always a È, even the one on the high B-flat, which is quite impressive. (Actually, it’s a bit “Noheul”, maybe that’s the secret…) There is an attempt at dynamic variation: the tone is soft in the first two-thirds of each stanza, and heroic in the last two lines. Except for the repeat by the choir, the piece is sung rather quickly, almost dancingly, and the pauses between verses are shortened. The organ playing is very ordinary; the sudden diminuendo before each stanza is almost comical. The Disciples de Massenet erupt violently on the repeat of “Peuple debout”, with a different phrasing from that of the soloist, and some voices stand out. The tenor returns just in time to toss off a second B-flat, but he is swallowed up by the choir.
Québec lyric tenor Richard Verreau (1926-2005) sang on many stages of the world, but he retired relatively early. In his recital À l’église (c.1960, RCA), his voice is beautiful, his final high note is powerful and without tension, but the low-lying phrase (“ceux qu’enchaînait le fer”) is hollow. The style is quiet, powerful and solemn. The Disciples de Massenet had much improved since 1945 (as had recording techniques). They come in gloriously at “Peuple debout” (which the tenor does not sing), never overpower the soloist, and the voices are more blended. There is no repeat, and the soloist sings only the last “Noël, Noël, chantons le Rédempteur”. The organ accompaniment is very sober, much better than the grandiose and melodically irrelevant orchestral accompaniment in his other Christmas recital (Concert, c.1960, RCA), in which the vocal performance is just as good.
Michel Dens (1911-2000) was a French light baritone, specialized in operetta. In his recording (1958-1966? reissued on the 2CD Noël! album, EMI France 1993), he dispenses, as always, a lesson in diction: the pronunciation is pointed and each syllable is perfectly e-nun-ci-a-ted. There are no glissandi. The voice is healthy, with good breath control, but ornaments are not his forte. In the second stanza, he sings “De notre foi… les chefs de l’Orient” instead of “Le Rédempteur a brisé… ceux qu’enchaînait le fer”, and the remainder of stanza 3 — an odd choice. The accompaniment by the Orchestre de l’Association des Concerts Colonne, led by René Challan, is very good, not grandiose, but the chorus is sometimes intrusive.
In his 1963 recording (reissued on the Fonovox label), Québec basso Yoland Guérard (1923-1987) has a beautiful natural voice. He has no trouble with the higher notes, but his low notes are slightly dry. His diction is perfect. His stern tone is unyielding; he marches on valiantly like a general on the battlefield, undeterred by the distant threatening grumble of timpani, all the while supported by sweet pizzicato arpeggios. The Orchestre Jean Larose provides the very original chiaroscuro accompaniment (timpani, 2-3 string instruments, small organ, clarinet).
Very few women have recorded the Cantique de Noël in French. The recording by Québec soprano Lyne Fortin (1962-) is a winner (1992, Analekta): lovely voice and style (though some consonants are barely brushed, even in forte), a wide range of dynamics and emotions (the most beautiful “meurt” on this list). The orchestral accompaniment (Orchestre Symphonique de Québec, cond. Pascal Verrot) is lovely, and the arrangement with harp, brass and strings is quite interesting. The pace, however, is a bit expansive.
In his first classical album (Le Premier Noël, ATMA, 2009), Québec tenor Marc Hervieux (1969-) sings the Cantique with power and gravity. The voice is beautiful, smooth and stable throughout its range, except for some tight È vowels in the higher range. He opts for the French fricative R rather than the Italianate rolled R (as did Jobin, 64 years earlier, but more discretely, without the ring). Double consonants are unduly stressed (“deSCendit”, “eFFaCCer”, etc.), as they should be in Italian but not in French (even some single ones too). A few syllables in stanza 2 are slightly sharp. The arrangement is classic, with choir and organ (the most beautiful organ sound in this list); the style is serious, unadorned (no appoggiatura or gruppetti), and the tempo is particularly slow. The Disciples de Massenet (cond. Lucie Roy) sing “Peuple à genoux…” once and the “Peuple debout…” twice. They sing softly and almost without vibrato, like angels gliding under the clouds. Everyone involved sings “ré-d’homme-teur” instead of “Rédempteur”.
Cantique de Noël
(or "Christmas Carol")
words by Placide Cappeau (Roquemaure, 1808-1877)
Literal translation by Eric Legault
(The tradition is to sing stanzas 1 and 3.)
Midnight, Christians: it is the solemn hour
Where the Man God came down to us,
To erase the original sin
And to stop the wrath of his Father.
The whole world trembles with hope
On this night that gives them a Savior.
People, on your knees! Await your deliverance.
Christmas! Christmas! Here is the Redeemer!
May the ardent light of our faith
Guide us all to the cradle of the Child,
As a shining star, long ago,
thereto led the leaders of the Orient.
The King of kings is born in a humble manger;
Powers of the day, proud of your grandeur,
To your pride, here is where God preaches.
Bow your heads before the Redeemer!
The Redeemer has broken all barriers,
The land is free and the sky is open.
He sees a brother where there was but a slave,
Love unites those whom the iron had enshackled.
Who will convey to him our gratitude?
It is for us all that He is born, He suffers and dies.
People, stand! Sing (acclaim) your deliverance!
Christmas! Christmas! Sing (acclaim) the Redeemer!