Chapter 10: Gaubert (1919–38), pp. 431-34
Apart from the eight sides recorded in New York in 1918, the Société
des Concerts did not make recordings during the acoustic” periodor
at least did not have its name identified with them. Many of the sociétaires
must have been called for the hundreds of discs, mostly of light fare and opera
excerpts, recorded avec orchestre.”
Then came the miracle,” writes one of its architects, the conductor Piero Coppola, in his memoirs, Dix-sept ans de musique à Paris, 192239. News reached from Camden, New Jersey, of the success achieved in recording a full orchestra with an electric microphone, and Coppola soon heard the April 1925 recording of Saint-Saënss Danse macabre with Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra. I was flabbergasted. Here, finally, was real music. . . . It was the end of the sound of penny whistles and the nasal meowing of unrecognizable instruments, the end of nails scraping on blackboards that would make you gnash your teeth. The sound that came from a spinning disc on a good machine with the top down seemed to me miraculous in fidelity and warmthand we were only at the beginning.” He convinced the London Gramophone Co. (HMV: His Masters Voice) firm to send him the Western Electric equipment, which he connected from a studio to the old Salle Pleyel, several hundred meters away, by means of a special line run for the purpose by the PTT. The first HMV France electronic recording was released in late 1926.
Within months the phonograph had come to rival the radio in quality of sound. By the turn of the decade both the technology and the ultra-modern design of the equipment ("in perfect taste,” said the publicity) made it suitable for even the most fastidious music-lovers salon. For the fall of 1929 the French Gramophone company promoted an automatic player which could change up to 20 discs, non-stop.”
The French firms of Columbia, Gramophone, Pathé, and Odéon embarked on a spirited rivalry in the race to capture the orchestral repertoire on disc and to secure exclusive contracts with the leading soloists, conductors, and ensembles. Columbia France won a first two-year contract with Gaubert and the Société des Concerts which extended from 1 January 1927 to 30 December 1928, covering six sessions a year. Some nine titles were released with Gaubert conducting, a repertoire that included The Marriage of Figaro overture and the Meistersinger prelude but focused on the Russian and French moderns (Mussorgsky, Borodin, Fauré, Debussy, Dukas, Ravel), notably including historic renditions of La Valse and two of the Debussy Nocturnes. Additionally there were the two Mozart and Schumann recordings of 1928 by Bruno Walter and the Mozart Festival Orchestra described earlier in this chapter. The succeeding two-year contract period, 1929 and 1930, saw the publication of several greatly more substantial works including the Franck D-minor Symphony, Tchaikovskys Pathétique Symphony, and Rimsky-Korsakovs Scheherazade. It culminated in the great recordings of Marguerite Long with Gaubert and the Société des Concerts: the Fauré Ballade and Chopin F-Minor Concerto. Longs Chopin Concerto, which took the Grand Prix du Disque of 1930, was welcomed in the press by Janine Weill (later her biographer) with wonder: The supple and precise playing of Marguerite Long is essentially phonogenic. ... The music is there, palpitating, at our doorstep.” (Long herself later observed that she was always more nervous in front of the microphone than in front of the public.” )
On 13 February 1930 a new contract was concluded by a vote of 72 to 1 with the nations oldest recording company, the Compagnie Française de Gramophone (est. October 1899)by then allied with HMV England and Victor US; this was later renewed for two two-year terms, thus forming an exclusive relationship with Gramophone that lasted from 1930 to October 1935. Columbia France meanwhile had reached an exclusivity arrangement with the Straram Orchestra. Gauberts exclusive contract was also with Columbiaas was Stravinskys.
It was for this reason that the formidable series of recordings made by the Société des Concerts between February 1930 and October 1935virtually the whole of the Impressionist” repertoire, and a good deal morewas led not by Philippe Gaubert but by Piero Coppola (18881971), artistic director of the Compagnie Française du Gramophone / La Voix de Son Maître and thus chief French liaison to the British parent company His Masters Voice.
Much of Coppolas work with the Société des Concerts was reissued on compact discs in 1998 and 1999 (and a good sampling issued much earlier on a commemorative set published by the Orchestre de Paris, 1990). The orchestra is undeniably fine, especially when at full strength, and Coppola seems a sensitive and capable musical executive. His Debussy cycle, including his own transcriptions of La Soirée dans Grenade and Cloches à travers les feuilles (1935: three months after the first performances by the Pasdeloup Orchestra), is without rival for the period. La Mer in 1932 established Coppolas credentials as a major exponent of Debussy; the 23-minute Nocturnes of 1938, including Sirènes” with a small chorus, is his masterpiece. Coppolas Ravel is equally impressive: Le Tombeau de Couperin won the Grand Prix du Disque in 1932. Here the listener is seduced in equal measure by the matchless ensemble of the strings and the remarkable flute and oboe solo work by Moyse and Bleuzet.
A characteristic of all the early recordings, and a long tradition at the Conservatoire, is the excellence and prominence of the harp work, here probably tendered by Victor Cœur and Alys Lautemann. For his part, Gaubert seems to favor uncommonly fast tempi, as though to emphasize the orchestras capabilities in that arena: note, for instance, the breathtaking speed of the 1927 Marriage of Figaro. Note, too, with both conductors and especially in Ravels La Valse, the strong dose of violin portamento, now long gone from the style.
By the mid 1930s the fortunes of the Compagnie Française du Gramophone were in decline, as French recording companies proliferated without a corresponding growth in the number of discophiles. Coppola resigned his position in 1934 in the wake of the industry consolidations taking place in London. When he returned to record the Debussy Nocturnes in May 1938, he was approached concerning his willingness to succeed Gaubert if the matter of his foreign nationality could be resolved.
The reorganization of the industry, followed in March 1936 by the expiration of the societys exclusive contract, made it possible for Gaubert to return with the Société des Concerts to the studio for two discs of his own music, Les Chants de la mer and Les Inscriptions pour les portes de la ville. There appears to have been a last successful session with Gaubert in 1938, devoted to excerpts from Berliozs La Damnation de Faust. Finally in May 1939 Gaubert and the orchestra recorded the Saint-Saëns Second Piano Concerto with Artur Rubinstein, who, feeling that the orchestra had made too many mistakes,” vetoed its release. (A compact disc was first published in 1999.) The orchestra for the July 1935 recording of the Saint-Saëns Fourth Piano Concerto, with Alfred Cortot andin his first known recording sessionCharles Münch, is unidentified but may have consisted of many or even most of the sociétaires: it may indeed be the source of player enthusiasm that soon led Münch to be elected Gauberts successor. Interestingly, the best of the records between Coppola and the start of the world war are those of two foreigners, Bruno Walter and Felix Weingartner.
Altogether the Société des Concerts recorded some 650 4½-minute faces during the 78 era, some 3,000 minutes, or 50 hours of music. One could not argue that preparing this remarkable discography much changed their repertoire, now an essentially stable mix of acknowledged traditions (Beethoven, Wagner, the Russians, the French Romantics and post-Romantics) and a modest commitment to living French composers. But it added a new, and central, pillar to the orchestras mission: to record aggressively, both for the income and for the prestige of the institution and the nation. Without a doubt, the recordings elevated the stature of the orchestra in the estimation of a far larger public than it would ever have reached in Paris or on the road. They renewed international perceptions of the Paris Conservatoire as an eminent locus of orchestral activity. Few record-buyers outside greater Paris could have known what little connection remained between the academic institution and the professional orchestra that carried its name.