Discovering Pierre d’Assy

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MEYERBEER: Robert le Diable: Nonnes, qui reposez. Les Huguenots: Piff, paff!; Pour cette cause sainte (w/Marthe Bakkers, sop; Émile Boussagol, bar); Benediction. Le Pardon de Ploërmel (Dinorah): En chasse. L’Africaine: Adamastor, roi des vagues; Brama! Vichnou! Shiva! HALÉVY: La Juive: Anathème de Brogni. Le val d’Andorre: Voilà le sorcier. VERDI: Les vêpres Siciliennes: Et toi, Palerme. GOUNOD: Faust: Mais ce Dieu que peut-il pour moi…À moi les plaisirs (w/Antonio Rocca, ten); Le veau d’or; Seigneur, daignez permette à votre humble servante…Quand du Seigneur (w/Berthe Augez de Montalant, sop); Vous qui faites l’endormie; Alerte, alerte ou vous êtes perdus! (w/Augez de Montalant, sop; Rocca, ten). Philémon et Baucis: Au bruit des lourds marteux. Mirielle: Si les filles d’Arles sont reines; Voici le val d’enfer. Roméo et Juliette: Allons jeunes gens. REYER: Sigurd: Au nom du roi Gunther. MASSENET: Hérodiade: Astres étincelants que l’infini. Le roi de Lahore: Aux troupes du sultan qui menaçaient Lahore. PALADILHE: Patrie: Pauvre martyr obscur. MOZART: Die Zauberflöte: O Isis und Osiris (in French). ROSSINI: Il barbiere di Siviglia: La caulnnia (in French). ADAM: Le chalet: Il faut me céder la mâitresse; Dans de bois de sapin (w/Georges Régis, ten). BERLIOZ: La damnation de Faust: Chanson de Brander et fugue. THOMAS: Mignon: Légères hirondelle; As-tu souffert? (w/Suzanne Brohly, mezzo). MASSE: Les noces de Jeannette: Margot, lève ton sabot. BIZET: Carmen: Votre toast…Toreador, en garde. MONTOUR: Le muletier de Castille. NADAUD: Le soldat de Marsala. FLÉGIER: Le cor. PLANQUETTE: Le régiment de Sambre et Meuse. GANNE: Marche Lorraine / Pierre d’Assy, bass / Musique en Wallonie MEW1683

Musique en Wallonie is a specialty label that apparently issues obscure recordings by even more obscure French singers. Aside from this release, their catalog contains albums by dramatic tenor Fernand Faniard (absolutely terrific), baritone Louis Richard (couldn’t find a single note sung by him online), soprano Huberte Velcray (stunning, gorgeous voice) and mezzo-soprano Lucienne Delvaux (who sounds like a chipmunk in the Carmen “Seguidilla” on YouTube), but all of these made records electrically, though Richard’s output started in the acoustic era (1922). Pierre d’Assy (1868-1910), who died shockingly young as the result of kidney failure, is the only one whose entire recorded output is stuck in the era of the morning-glory horn, 1908-09, but he is no less obscure.

During the years of his active career, during which he apparently also used his family name of Bordet, d’Assy was active and popular almost exclusively in France and Belgium, singing in Saint-Martin, Lyon, the Hague, Brussels and La Monnaie, yet somehow never achieved much name recognition in Western Europe and America, as did his contemporaries Pol Plançon, Marcel Journet (with whom d’Assy shared bass roles at La Monnaie in 1899), Hippolyte Belhomme, Jean-François Delmas or Juste Nivette, though the last three were primarily famous from records and not from singing in America. Thus he remained something of a “hothouse flower,” an artist greatly appreciated in his time and place but not one that “traveled well.”

Despite my having been a collector of older singers since I was about 15 years old (starting, as most do, with Enrico Caruso and his compeers, Louise Homer, Geraldine Farrar, Giuseppe de Luca, Pasquale Amato and, yes, Marcel Journet), d’Assy’s is a name I had never run across before. Joe Pearce, current president of the Vocal Record Collectors’ Society, has told me that d’Assy’s original recordings are somewhat obscure but not really very rare. This is probably due to the fact that French-speaking collectors knew about and bought his records, and as they aged and/or died they were either sold to rare 78 dealers or bequeathed to any relatives who also had a hankering for Golden Age opera singers. The sound on these recordings is extremely variable, even from side to side. “En chasse” from Meyerbeer’s Le Pardon de Ploërmel (Dinorah), for instance, is extremely cramped and tinny-sounding, whereas the very next record, “Adamastor” from the same composer’s L’Africana, is clear as a bell, even the acoustically-recorded orchestra sounding surprisingly full and bright.

Pierre d’Assy had a wonderfully warm, rich and powerful bass voice, even in its registers and well produced from top to bottom. He studied voice, against the will of his family, with Jacques Bouhy and both voice and music theory with Joseph Delsemme. He established himself as a quality singer by 1895, when he was only 27 years old. Singers back then got gigs on the basis of their pipes, not because of how many competitions they entered and won.

In listening to these recordings, you get a tremendous sense of occasion, almost as if each one was recorded at a live performance. Indeed, track 3 on the first CD, “Pour cette cause sainte” from Les Huguenots, contains a chorus and two solo singers (soprano Marthe Bakkers and baritone Émile Boussagol, both unknown to me) and sounds like a snippet from a live performance. Everything is immaculately rehearsed and executed; you hear none of the sloppiness that often infected old opera records of that era, even sometimes on the Caruso discs. It’s all pin-neat and perfectly executed.

d'Assy as St Bris

d’Assy as St. Bris in “Les Huguenots”

On the other hand, one can see why d’Assy may not have made much of an impression among those British or American audiences who were rather spoiled by the likes of Plançon with his suave delivery and flawless technique or Journet with his equally fine technique and larger, more burnished tone. For all his excellences, d’Assy sings in a fairly straightforward manner. His singing is not “nuanced,” as the olden critics used to say, with such niceties as diminuendo, messa di voce or soft, floated high notes. It is never crude—in fact, if anything he sometimes followed the scores more scrupulously than Plançon did (d’Assy, unlike Plançon and Journet, doesn’t do that stupid slow-down in the first line of “Le veau d’or” from Faust)—and he occasionally revealed good control in singing runs (note “Et toi, Palerme” from Verdi’s Le vêpres Sicilienne), but he didn’t possess a trill, as both Plançon and Journet did (not to mention Polish bass Edouard de Reszke, who also sang a great deal of the French repertoire), and his interpretations, such as they are, are pretty much outward and painted in primary colors. Nonetheless, as one listens to the album one cannot help but be impressed by the voice’s incredible richness and the fact that d’Assy always seems to be a “presence” if not exactly the character he is supposed to be.

In short, it’s a surprisingly pleasant and rewarding experience to listen to him without effacing memories of your favorite French-repertoire basses. As long as that warm, lovely, resonant voice is booming around you, your mind doesn’t necessarily rush to comparisons. You like what you hear, and it’s a strong enough presence to make you want to keep on listening.

rocca

Antonio Rocca

Take, for instance, the first-act scene from Gounod’s Faust, recorded in two parts with the obscure Italian tenor Antonio Rocca (1876 – ?), who had a pretty good voice if not a first-rate one. The tempos are crisp, the scene moves pretty well despite having some cuts, and both singers at least sound involved in what they are doing. Go back and listen to Caruso and Journet sing the single-sided “O merveille!” from the same scene, and Caruso sounds like a sick cow by comparison despite his much richer and more beautiful voice. Journet, always interesting as Mephistopheles, tried to pick things up but didn’t quite make it. By contrast, however, the Church Scene recorded by Geraldine Farrar and Journet has much more life and drive to it than d’Assy’s version with the excellent soprano Berthe Augez de Montalant. Despite the fact that both singers are in good voice, and Montalant tries to liven up her part, this is one recording where the orchestra, chorus and conductor fall rather flat, and d’Assy only makes a good impression in the second half. It’s a rare disappointment in this otherwise splendid collection. The “serenade” of Mephisto immediately following is pretty well characterized and, again, sung in fairly strict time.

D’Assy’s weaknesses come more to the fore in the slow arias from Hérodiade, Le roi de Lahore and Patrie! He was not particularly eloquent in the first two, and in the last one he tended to oversing a bit which led to a cracked note in the middle of the aria. Moreover, none of these pieces are particularly good music. At the beginning of CD 2, however, we get yet another slow aria, the well-known “O Isis und Osiris” from Die Zauberflöte (sung in French), and here d’Assy is in superb voice and once again sings cleanly—more cleanly than Plançon, who introduces some decelerando into the aria in an effort to sound “nuanced.” I’ll take d’Assy’s performance over his any day. He descends to a nice low F at the end. In Don Basilio’s “La calunnia” from The Barber of Seville, we are treated to some beautiful, clean singing but no indication of the character…another disappointment. Immediately following, however, is a pretty good rendition of the obscure aria “Voilà le sorcier” from the equally obscure Halévy opera, Le val d’Andorre. The lively if formulaic duets from Adolphe Adam’s comic opera Le chalet are sung with Georges Régis, a tenor so obscure that only one photo has survived and no one even knows the years of his birth or death. It was a nice, light tenor voice, however, just right for this type of music, sort of an acoustic-era Alain Vanzo. In the second half (it was recorded over two sides), Régis pulls a really nice high D-flat out of the air, perfectly placed.

A surprising record is the baritone aria of the “Song of the Rat” from Berlioz’ La damnation de Faust. It’s pretty good, with a nice-sounding chorus, and to my knowledge a VERY rare aria for that era. In the duet from Mignon he is paired with the great mezzo Suzanne Brohly, who sings magnificently as she always did. Vulcan’s famous aria from Gounod’s Philemon et Baucis is reproduced here a half-tone too high (the actual key is B-flat minor), which makes d’Assy sound way too baritonal, and he doesn’t have the trill. On the other hand, the arias from Mirielle, mediocre music though they are, are sung with great energy. He also does a nice job on the Carmen Toreador song; he has just the right voice, a baritonal top and a deep bass bottom. Plus they use a chorus, with sopranos—a real luxury in the acoustic era!

D’Assy has a good time singing the somewhat simplistic but well-crafted Le muletier de Castille, including some nifty runs. It’s one of five songs that end the album, of which the most famous are Flégier’s Le Cor as well as Planquette’s Le régiment de Sambre et Meuse and the well-known Marche Lorraine (the last two among the five recordings that d’Assy made for Zonophone under the pseudonym of Beaufort). Interestingly, near the end of his brief career his wife Jeanne, a soprano, was beginning to overshadow him, possibly because he lacked that “nuance” that so many listeners of the time wanted to hear. In his first season at the Garnier Theater, he was given mostly minor roles, which were made up for the next season, but she was beginning to eclipse him in the critics’ reviews. Sadly, his health took a sharp turn for the worse in early 1910 and on the night of March 6-7, 1910, d’Assy suffered an acute case of uremia and was pronounced dead at five in the morning. His funeral, on the 11th, was well attended by both members of the public and colleague of his who greatly admired his singing. Before his body was put in the hearse, the famous baritone Jean Noté gave an emotional speech, recalling his great successes and bidding him a fond farewell. And that was the end of Pierre-Joseph-Alphonse Bordet, a.k.a. d’Assy.

Collectors of vocal antiquities will undoubtedly want this collection, but I would think that at least a few aspiring bass-baritones might want to hear how he managed his splendid voice. The musical cleanliness of most of his performances will also appeal greatly to modern ears despite the dated sound. Finally, Pierre d’Assy has received his just due.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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