HONEGGER: Jeanne d’Arc au Bucher – Vera Zorina, narrator/ Frances Yeend, soprano/ Carolyn Long, soprano/ Martha Lipton, mezzo-soprano/ David Lloyd, tenor/ Kenneth Smith, bass-baritone/ Temple University & St. Peter’s Boys’ Choir/The Philadelphia Orchestra/ Eugene Ormandy – Pristine Audio PACO 073, 72:12 [avail. in various formats from www.pristineclassical.com] ****:
Arthur Honegger (1892-1955) composed his oratorio Jeanne d’Arc au Bucher on a commission by the dancer and actress Ida Rubinstein, who first performed it in 1938. I had the pleasure of attending a performance by Vera Zorina (1917-2003) and Robert Shaw in Atlanta, where upon meeting Ms. Zorina, I told her that the mold had been broken so that none could follow her example. She thought that was clever. Honegger’s work celebrates a gigantic moment for both time and egos. Less a narrative than a consideration of Joan’s life and saintly death from the standpoint of her final days, the piece generates a kind of emotional convulsion, using Paul Claudel’s text to project Joan’s trial and execution as the result of insidious political forces conspiring against her. While a natural theater piece, any recording reduces it to a concert work in twelve parts, many of which are meditations that offer inspired or merely “populist” musical means. It orates, it sings, it dramatizes with cinematic scene-splicing. At Joan’s trial, prosecutorial pigs and asses oink and bray. Honegger illustrates moral purity with 15th Century plainchant, while moments of moral decadence exploit contemporary, raucous music in honky-tonk style.
Recorded by CBS 16 and 21 November 1952 in the Academy of Music, Philadelphia, the oratorio allows Eugene Ormandy (1899-1985) ample opportunity for size and color display, despite the uneven quality of Honegger’s score, which exploits the eerie sound of the ondes martenot. Sound restoration by the inimitable Mark Obert-Thorn quite unnerves us with its blaring presence. Heavenly confessor Brother Dominic (Raymond Gerome) recites the events of Joan’s life in reverse order. The howling of a dog, her fear, contrasts with the singing of a bird, her innocence. The court scene becomes a beast-fable allegory, a “kangaroo” court of braying asses and percussive sheep with no commitment to truth. This trial scene for her “relapsed heresy,” which Honegger sets as a grotesque scherzo, has David Lloyd’s tenor rise to catch the right note of venomous hysteria as Joan’s chief tormentor, Porcus (alias Bishop Cauchon).
In “The Kings, or the Invention of the Game of Cards,” Honegger exerts a demonic counterpoint and anguished harmony to ridicule those powers intent on retaining their power while delivering Joan to an expedient justice; in this case, the English King. Zorina injects an unearthly detachment as she recites the accusations against Joan, begging Dominic to explain the justice of her fate. In “Catherine and Margaret,” Joan hears bells and the singing of angels. In “The King sets Out for Rheims,” Honegger stages a ceremonial panorama, as Charles VII accedes to the throne in the midst of lovely folk songs, the last symbolic of the Hebrews’ awaiting a messiah. Bass Kenneth Simon makes points in cantorial tones. “The Sword of Joan,” which turns out to be Divine Love, offers Honegger’s most mystically lovely music. Martha Lipton and Frances Yeend lend their talents to the scene, as Joan repeats her name, a mantra of inspired patriotism, even in her innocent youth as a shepherdess in the village of Domremy. The Philadelphia woodwinds and strings imbue the scene with the sounds of Spring and immanent life. The Boy Choir’s voices add a touch of pantheistic ecstasy to the happy aura, the numinous idea of Joan, Daughter of God.
With the reading of “The Book” of Joan’s life complete, Dominic departs and leaves Joan to her unjust fate. “Trimazo,“ the folksong of Lorraine, now conjoins with a canticle of Francis of Assisi; even the Virgin Mary oversees Joan’s martyrdom, the fire emanating from the Philadelphia strings. The final section rises to genuine emotional power as Joan both fears and accepts her martyrdom. The ondes martenot sounds the horrifically passionate release of Joan’s pure soul from a tormented body: chains of love, chains of fire. Honegger concludes with a magnificat of French adoration, the flute’s birdsong illuminating the finale with a spirit of noble valediction.
Devotional and grandly mounted, the Ormandy performance generates its own grand spectacle, and this fine restoration raises the work beyond a mere occasion for French nationalism.
The historic restorations show a renewed vitality.