Exploring Jean Fournet

Jean Fournet

MARTIN: Le mystère de la Nativité (Christmas Oratorio, 1957-59) / Elly Ameling, sop (Eve/Notre Dame); Aafje Heynis, alto (Elizabeth/Anna the Prophet); Ernst Häfliger, ten (Angel Gabriel/Melchior); Herbert Handt, ten (Satan/Ysambert); Serge Maurer, ten (Belzébuth/Rifflart); Louis J. Rondeleux, bar (Adam/Joseph); Leo Ketelaars, bar (An Actor/Astaroth/Pellion/Baltazar); André Vassieres, bs (Father of God/Simon the Prophet); Guus Hoekman, bs (Lucifer/Aloris/Jaspar/Priest) / FRANCK: Psyche. Redemption / Gé Noutel, sop / BADINGS: Symphony No. 10.* Piano Concerto No. 1 / Coor de Groot, pno / CHAILLEY: Symphony No. 1 in g min.+ / HENKEMANS: Partita. Violin Concerto / Dick de Reus, vln / Netherlands Radio Choir & Philharmonic Orch.; *Rotterdam Philharmonic Orch.; +Orchestre National de l’ORTF; Jean Fournet, cond

Jean Fournet, who lived practically forever (1913-2008), was a French conductor who generally flew under the radar of most classical music lovers. This was not because he didn’t conduct on a fairly constant basis, but mostly because he only conducted French, Dutch and Japanese orchestras, made only a few recordings, and, as in the case of so many conductors, was more interesting in live performance than on discs. He was the guest conductor of the Radio Éirann Orchestra starting in 1950, principal guest conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra from 1961-68, music director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic (1968-1973) and the newly-created Orchestra National de l’Île de France (1973-1982), and conductor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra (1983-1986). Among his rare appearances outside of these venues were a debut at the Chicago Opera in 1965 with a double bill of Orff’s Carmina Burana and Ravel’s L’Heure Espagnole and his debut at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 1987, conducting Samson et Dalila.

Perhaps one reason why Fournet did not always get what he wanted from his orchestras is that he was “known as a gentle perfectionist, rarely raising his voice in rehearsal.” Well, Jean, take a tip from me—as well as from Bruno Walter, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Arturo Toscanini and Klaus Tennstedt: if you don’t raise your voice in rehearsal, you’re bound not to always get what you want. And such was the case with Fournet. He made the first commercial recordings of Berlioz’ La damnation de Faust (1942) and Requiem (1943), both, sadly, barely known in America. I first ran across him when reviewing a wonderful live performance of the same composer’s Lélio.

Some, but not all, of the recordings listed above were issued on the 8-CD set whose cover graces the header of this review. I was unable to find Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony for free streaming, likewise Massenet’s opera La Jongleur de Notre Dame (a piece of Romantic claptrap which frankly doesn’t interest me), or Falla’s Nights in the Garden of Spain.

The live performances under consideration are all outstanding; in some cases, the only existing recordings of these major works. Frank Martin’s Le mystère de la Nativité was given one commercial recording on the obscure Musiques Suisses World label in 2010, a 2-CD set so rare that you can only find copies for sale on French Amazon for 24,07 Euros ($26.66); Franck’s Psyché appears to have 15 available recordings, but look again: in most cases, it’s just one selection from this suite, Psyché et Eros. The only complete recordings besides Fournet’s are the ones by the rather obscure conductor Yuri Ahronovitch on Profil, Willem van Otterloo on Challenge (an old mono broadcast), Armin Jordan on Erato and by Tadaaki Otaka on Chandos. Conductor David Procelijn has an obscure recording of Badings’ Tenth Symphony on CPO, but Fournet’s is the only recording of that composer’s Piano Concerto. There are no other recordings of Jacques Chailley’s Symphony No. 1, and so far as the CD companies are concerned, Hans Henkemans was only a pianist—there is one, count it, one, CD available of him playing Debussy—but apparently not a composer.

In these live performances, the energy level is quite high throughout, which helps the weak moments in Franck’s Redemption, and Fournet’s vocal soloists in the Martin Le mystère are outstanding, not only the famous names like Elly Ameling and Ernst Häfliger but also in the singing of the practically unknown Aafje Heynis, Herbert Handt and Louis J. Rondeleux. This, by the way, is not your grandfather’s “Christmas oratorio”; Martin wrote a very complex modern work here, full of surprising harmonic twists and turns, that can easily be enjoyed by those who don’t believe in or celebrate Christmas. As for Redemption, Franck wrote it at a time, in the early 1870s, when France had suffered a calamitous defeat at the hands of the Prussians and the country was in despair. He saw religion as a means of putting balm on the physical and psychological wounds of the French people, to look to the afterlife as a form of solace. Some of the music in it is trite and formulaic, but most of it is quite moving and even beautiful. And once again the obscure soloist, soprano Gé Noutel, is excellent.

Yet for me, the real gems here are the modern works. Just as I was astonished and delighted by the imaginative and original writing in Martin’s Le mystère de la Nativité, I was even more astonished that I had never heard or heard of these works by Badings, Henkemans and Chailley but, then again, I had been completely ignorant of the outstanding orchestral works of Erwin Schulhoff, Karol Rathaus and Hans Winterberg until a decade ago. These are major works, brilliantly written and conceived, and Fournet plays them with taut precision.

For those who wish to explore Fournet a bit further, there’s an excellent Supraphon album, recorded in 1963 and ’65, of him conducting Debussy’s Nocturnes, La Mer and Ibéria. I personally felt that “Nuages” from the Nocturnes was too slow (I’ve been spoiled by Haitink and Toscanini), but the rest of the album is absolutely outstanding, particularly this recording of La Mer which I would put at the top of stereo recordings of this major work. (Incidentally, Fournet also recorded “Ronde de printemps” from the Images with the Czech Philharmonic, which is also available for free streaming on YouTube, but only one live mono recording of him conducting “Gigues.”)

I highly recommend that you listen to these performances and discover what made Jean Fournet tick. When he was good, he was very, very good, and in these performances you can generally hear him at his peak as an interpreter.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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