Classical Notes

A Frenchman in Detroit

"An American in Paris" makes sense – all us crude Yankees crave a touch of European class. But a Frenchman in Detroit? Why would an emissary of the world’s most refined culture come to Motown?

Throughout its history,treble clef graphic classical music developed in distinct national schools. While European artists occasionally would entrain for Russia or set sail for the New World, most were content to remain nestled in their own culture. Recently, though, that all changed.

Blame America as the catalyst. At first, we were the poor stepchild, with no distinct heritage of our own. But as repression and then genocide pushed European artists to emigrate to fill the vacuum among our wealthy but unenlightened masses, something new emerged – a multicultural force that blended together into a pluralism that gleamed brighter than any of its components. Innovations in transportation and technology promise to accelerate the process: modern soloists already can jet to European, Asian and American concert halls in a single week and soon virtual performances may supplant the need to appear in person at all.

But while much was gained in harmonizing discrete traditions to meet the demands of a modern, unified world, something important was lost. While a century ago the latest works were eagerly anticipated and showered with attention, nowadays classical music focuses exclusively on the repertoire of the past. All of the music we admire was written decades, if not centuries, ago by composers raised in a specific tradition. Take Bach away from his Lutheran church, deprive Wagner of his German mythology, extract Tchaikovsky from his Slavic roots, and they never would have produced the works for which we now revere them.

These same composers all expected their music to be performed by artists immersed in those same traditions. While an American generalist like Bernstein could produce credible readings of nearly anything, there’s something uniquely satisfying in hearing Mravinsky conduct Russian symphonies, Furtwangler lead German music, Beecham conjure the British, or the old La Scala sets of Italian operas. Their recordings have served (and will continue to serve) a crucial role in preserving the authentic sound of these distinct national traditions which have largely disappeared but which represent the way our favorite composers wanted their work to be played. All these records serve as crucial models for modern and future authentic performances.

And what about the French? Hey – want to be a millionaire? Multiple choice: The greatest French orchestra on record is in (A) Paris, (B) Marseilles, (C) Lyons, or (D) Detroit? 50/50? OK, let’s eliminate (B) and (C), so it's between Paris and Detroit. Final answer? Are you sure? Well, I’ll bet you were wrong – the correct answer is D. That’s right – the very essence of refined French culture is in the Motor City, or at least it was from 1952 to 1963. That’s when the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (the "DSO") led by Paul Paray recorded a legendary series of LPs with Mercury’s "Living Presence" label.

Paray was born into a musical family in 1886. Despite the interruptions of both World Wars (he spent most of the first as a prisoner of war and the second with the Resistance) he established a solid reputation as a French conductor, heading orchestras in Lamoureux, Monte Carlo and Paris. American guest stints led to his appointment as permanent conductor of the recently reorganized DSO. Their very first records prove that he quickly forged the ensemble into a truly great orchestra and transformed its sound into a replica of those he had known in France. (Paray ultimately parted ways with the DSO in 1963 but remained active well into his ‘nineties; conductors do tend to last a very long time!)

It’s especially remarkable that the fiercely proud French tradition should thrive in the heart of America, the very place where national trends became forsaken and assimilated. After all, French culture is the most deeply chauvinistic of any, proudly defended to the death against the pollution of foreign influence. Indeed, the most famous French music has a unique sound, often described as impressionistic, much like the paintings of Monet and Renoir. It’s a valid analogy. Like that art, French impressionist music is concerned more with color effects than formal structure, as sensual melodies briefly appear before flitting away. While the overall effect is of subtle, blended mist, the sound is achieved through a layering of distinct instruments, much as in a Seraut painting in which the pastel atmosphere arises from dots of intense color. That’s what Paray gives us – not a sonic blur but precise dabs of bold instrumental coloration. Just as brushstrokes are carefully placed, the DSO’s rhythm and articulation of individual notes are always precise and luminously clear.

The analogy even extends to the recordings. In early 1953, Paray and the DSO cut their first records for Mercury, which had startled the hi-fi world in 1951 with the unprecedented clarity and musicality of an acclaimed series of albums using a single microphone and no equalization, filtering, mixing or compression. The elegance of this approach was continued in late 1955 with multi-channel recordings using only three mikes, each separately tracked on half-inch tape (later 35 mm film) and then mixed down to stereo. The result is not only astonishingly vivid (eclipsing many recent DDD CDs) , but manages to project a soundstage image that gives a wonderful sense of the atmosphere of the recording venues which were chosen for their distinctive acoustics. Just as you can glean detail from an impressionist painting by looking closely at the canvas, Mercury’s sound provides aural glasses that let you approach and appreciate the quality of Paray’s intricately woven sonic fabric.

As a further touch of integrity, CD conversions were made with the original tubed equipment and were supervised by Wilma Cozart Fine, the original recording director. (Her husband Robert had been the chief recording engineer.) So far, all of Paray’s stereo records with the DSO have emerged on CD except the Beethoven Symphonies 1 and 2 and the Mozart "Haffner" Symphony; they’d fit well on a single disc (hint!). Of their dozen mono LPs, only the Schumann Symphony # 4 is available; let’s hope for the others, including Rimsky-Korsakoff’s Capriccio Espagnol, "Antar" Symphony and Russian Easter Overture, Beethoven’s Symphonies 6 and 7, Brahms’s Symphony # 4, Liszt’s Les Preludes, Faure’s Pelleas et Melisande and Roussel’s Spider’s Feast.

Naturally, Paray brought an appropriate Gallic touch to the great French repertoire. His Debussy, Ravel, Chabrier and Roussel are magnificent, beautifully capturing their elegance with a self-effacing confidence. The DSO complements Paray’s approach with superb playing, each instrument gleaming with individual pride yet prefectly nestled in the ensemble. Paray also produced unusually polished and convincing readings of overtures and light pieces, according them a respect usually reserved for more challenging music.

Equally fascinating is Paray’s touch applied to music of other national schools. Especially revealing are the symphonies of Saint-Saens, Franck and Berlioz. Although all three composers were French, their symphonies, a traditional German form, are cast in seething Teutonic mysticism and are usually played with dark, heavy drama. Paray, though, lightens the textures and emphasizes the interplay of instruments. He works similar wonders with Rachmaninov, Sibelius and even Wagner, the epitome of German music and about as far from the French aesthetic as possible.

Paray brought to all his work the highest achievement in any art, whether acting, painting or music – from careful preparation, constant revision and grueling work emerges something natural, accessible and inviting. And through this process, Paray created and preserved an island of his native land in a most unlikely place, as distant geographically and culturally as could be. His DSO records prove his undeniable success.

So vive Paray, Motown and its fabulous orchestra!

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The reissue on CD of Paray’s Mercury Living Presence records began nearly a decade ago, and all volumes seem to still be in print and available. Except where I’ve noted, the orchestral playing is consistently superb, as are most of the recordings (the exceptions being the first stereos (December 1955) which lack top-end finish, and, curiously, his last ones (1961-2), which tend toward overload. To help track the chronology, I’ve added the recording dates given on the CDs for each of the selections, as well as the year in which the CD was issued. A welcome bonus is generally fine liner notes.

Just to be a bit perverse, I’ll start with the works with which one would assume Paray to be the least attuned and work up to those in which he fulfils expectations.

  • Wagner Der Fliegende Hollander, Overture (2/1960); Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg Suite (2/1960); Die Walkure: Wotan’s Farewell and Magic Fire Music (2/1960); Rienzi, Overture (2/1960); Gotterdammerung: Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey (3/1956); Siegfried Idyll (3/1956); Tristan und Isolde: Prelude to Act III (3/1956). 434 383-2 (1996).

While Germany and France may be geographic neighbors, their cultures (and politics) are as far apart as can be.Paul Paray and the Detroit Symphony play Wagner One would expect Paray, a quintessential French conductor, to either avoid, be indifferent to, or stumble badly over the works of the key German composer. And yet, this is one of the very best Wagner compilations around. It begins with a Flying Dutchman Overture that is ardent, beautifully played and shorn of interpretive rhetoric. The Meistersinger Suite is not the standard overture, but a combination of the wistful Act III Prelude, the playful dance of the apprentices, and then the monumentally powerful music in praise of the master-singers which concludes the overture (and, ultimately, the opera); this progression makes perfect sense, both musically and dramatically, depicting the melancholy of age worrying over the future, alleviated by faith in the children in whose hands the future will lie, and sealed by a statement of decisive leadership of the current generation. The otherwise well-conceived program concludes on a bizarre note (literally) – the final selection is the Prelude to Act III (not the more common Prelude to Act I) of Tristan, which wallows in grief and then simply cuts off a plaintive and poignant solo oboe passage; it’s deeply moving, but a rather bizarre choice and a musical downer. Reprogramming the last two tracks, so that the Prelude leads into the lovely Siegfried Idyll, works much better.

  • SchumannSymphony # 1 in B-flat ("Spring") (3/1958); Symphony # 2 in C (12/1955); Symphony # 3 in E-flat ("Rhenish") (11/1956); Symphony # 4 in d (12/1954 – monaural); Manfred Overture (3/1958). 289 462 955-2 (2 CDs) (1999).

This volume presents a unique opportunity – Paray’s only set of the integral symphonies of a single composer.Paul Paray and the Detroit Symphony play Schumann His only foray into German music beyond the Wagner excerpts noted above is equally credible. While the proliferation of original instrument renditions have changed our perception of these works over the past decade, Paray’s readings are traditional. Even so, they sound quite modern, as they solve the "problem" of Schumann’s heavy textures with brisk rhythms, lyricism and energy, while duly respecting the composer’s fundamental seriousness. Rather than apply a consistent style, Paray finds the appropriate approach to each work, ranging from an incredibly airy and propulsive Overture to a suitably fiery and dramatic Symphony # 2. An added bonus is the Symphony # 4 in rich but detailed mono. It’s the earliest of the Paray/DSO records on CD and tantalizingly suggests the excellence of the others. Hopefully they’ll soon appear, although it’s likely that this one was included only to complete this set. With the acclaimed recent release of several early ‘fifties Kubelik/Chicago CDs, perhaps Mercury has overcome its fear of mono and will now proceed to reissue the rest of the Paray/DSOs.

  • MendelssohnA Midsummer’s Night Dream, Incidental Music (3/1958); Symphony # 5 in d ("Reformation") (3/1958). HaydnSymphony # 96 in D (10/1956). 289 434 396-2 (1998).

Among German composers, Mendelssohn’s light and graceful compositions approach the French aesthetic more closely than any others.Paul Paray and the Detroit Symphony play Mendelssohn Paray’s Midsummer’s Night Dream is exquisite. The scherzo, in particular, with its astounding ensemble and precise articulation of notes and accents, is a testament to the excellence of the DSO’s musicianship. He presents the austere "Reformation" Symphony in a kaleidoscope of moods – the opening is tempestuous, the scherzo graceful and elegant, the hymn surprisingly light and sweet, and the closing bouncy and affirmative. The Haydn is bigger-boned than we are now accustomed, but vital and detailed.

  • Dvorak Symphony # 9 in e ("From the New World") (2/1960). SibeliusSymphony # 2 in D (1/1959). 434 317-2 (1992).

Here are two more readings that defy expectations. Dvorak’s innate charm and lyricism would seem a natural fit for Paray,Paul Paray and the Detroit Symphony play Dvorak and Sibelius but the power of this performance is derived not from any special interpretive insight but rather from the extraordinary precision and polish of the playing. Perhaps Paray felt a special devotion to this work and sought to express some of his own feelings as a guest in the New World, much as Dvorak had done in composing it 70 years earlier. Even more surprising, though, is Paray’s fully dramatic Sibelius, complete with striking tempo changes, strong accents and extreme dynamic contrasts, which derives even more power from the magnificent execution and recording quality. Perhaps it all goes to show the futility of trying to reduce a great artist to a monochromatic stereotype.

  • RachmaninovSymphony # 2 in e (3/1957). FranckSymphony in d (11/1959). 434 368-2 (1996)

For his only stereo foray into Russian music, Paray resists the considerable temptation to underline the score’s feverish emotion and lets the natural beauty of Rachmaninov’s ravishing lyricism speak for itself.Paul Paray and the Detroit Symphony play Rachmaninoff and Franck True, the performance is cut and swift, but perhaps that’s the best way to make a convincing case for a work that boasts some of the most gorgeous melodies that ever graced a symphony but does tend to meander. Only in the third movement does Paray’s approach seem a bit perfunctory. The sound quality deteriorates at the conclusion (and now can’t be blamed on inner-groove distortion). In the Franck, Paray steers a middle course, downplaying mysticism to dwell on the lyricism and inherent drama to permit the work to flow its course – quite appropriate in a tightly-structured symphony in which common themes (derived from a single motif) unite all 3 movements and in which the second cleverly blends elements of the traditionally separate adagio and scherzo. The orchestral balance and bright recording favor blazing brass. At 80 minutes, this disc is an especially fine value.

  • SuppeOvertures: The Beautiful Galatea, Pique Dame, Light Calvary, Poet and Peasant, Morning, Noon and Night, Boccaccio (all 11/1959). Auber Overtures: The Bronze Horse, Fra Diavolo, Masaniello (all 4/1959). 434 309-2 (1992).

These works are quintessentially Viennese and speak the same language as Johann Strauss – rhythmically vital, vivacious, infectious.Paul Paray and the Detroit Symphony play Suppe and Auber Overtures Both composers spent their lives in the lyric theatre and produced instantly accessible music without a shred of pretense. Like Toscanini, Paray appeared to take special pride in according light classical fluff the attention and respect usually reserved for more substantial challenging music with polished and convincing readings. Many prominent conductors (including, I’m sorry to say, Bernstein) have discouraged appreciation and enjoyment of these and similar works with sloppy throwaway runthroughs; here, though, they’re carefully prepared and magnificently played with a delightful combination of care and zest.

  • BizetLa Patrie Overture (3/1958); Carmen Suite (11/1956); L’Arlesienne Suites 1 and 2 (11/1956). Thomas Mignon Overture; Raymond Overture (11/1960). 434 321-2 (1992).

At last we turn to the French music in which his fame arose. Paray and the DSO give suitably spirited readings of the Bizet and Thomas overtures.Paul Paray and the Detroit Symphony play Bizet While the Arlesienne pieces are somewhat understated (and the Carillon, Pastorale and Farandole sections are considerably more deliberate than is the custom), they’re colorful and nicely characterized. Note, though, that the Carmen Suite is Paray’s own selection which avoids orchestration of vocal parts and therefore sticks entirely to the preludes (and the first act change of the guard, where the orchestra doubles the vocal lines anyway to reinforce a sometimes-shaky children’s chorus) and omits many of the usual items. It does, however, include a cough at Track 3, 1:01, perhaps suggesting that these tapings were more akin to an actual performance than a product of the splicing block (and thus creating even more admiration for their formal perfection).

  • ChabrierEspana, Suite pastorale, Fete polonaise, Gwendoline Overture, Danse slave (all 11/1960); Marche joyeuse (9/19159); Bourree fantasque (3/1957). Roussel Suite in f (3/1957). 434 303-2 (1991).

As aptly noted in the fine liner notes by David Rubin, Chabrier’s art is characterized by its fresh and spontaneous exhuberance,Paul Paray and the Detroit Symphony play Chabrier all the more remarkable bacause it arose not in a spate of sudden inspiration but rather through meticulous craftsmanship and constant revision.. More remarkable still is that Chabrier began composing only in his ‘forties and succumbed to mental illness shortly thereafter. The splendor of this record perhaps derives its inspiration from the composer – meticulous rehearsal to achieve precision and grace in a context of impulsive joy that beautifully recreates and realizes Chabrier’s essence.

  • ChaussonSymphony in B-flat (3/1956). LaloLe Roi d’Ys, Overture (3/1959); Namouna, Suite # 1 (3/1958). Barraud Offrande a une Ombre (3/1957). 434 389-2 (1997).

This is one of the very few Paray records that strikes me as less than fully successful – he struggles to find Gallic grace and charmPaul Paray and the Detroit Symphony play Chausson and Lalo in a work that has very little and which sounds more convincing in the more pointed, energetic and overtly dramatic readings of his French contemporaries Munch and Monteux. The recording, too, is blurred and substandard. The Barraud is an earnest but cloying little piece that depicts too literally the loss of innocence in war (ie: a pastoral flute is submerged in martial drumming). The Lalo overture and suite are far less pretentious and far more enjoyable.

  • "Paul Paray Conducts Dances of Death" -- Liszt Mephisto Waltz; WeberInvitation to the Dance; Saint-Saens Danse Macabre (all 1/1959). Strauss Dance of the Seven Veils from "Salome"; Schmitt La Tragedie de Salome (both 3/1958). 434 336-2 (1994).

This collection just might have the most off-putting title of all time. It’s also inappropriate, as one of the five selections, the Invitation to the Dance,Paul Paray and the Detroit Symphony play 'Dances of Death' (yech!) is all carefree froth and has nothing whatever to do with the grim reaper; in the contrary, it’s a delightful depiction of a breezy, whirlwind dance without even a hint of impending doom and the liner notes don’t pretend otherwise. In any event, Paray consistently places his musical emphasis on the lyrical dance element of these pieces rather than on the darker stuff, and generally slights the diabolic energy to which most other conductors give equal measure and which forms much of their appeal – the Danse Macabre sounds playful and disarming and the Strauss, with its demonic overtones, emerges far more bright and sprightly than we are accustomed. The Schmitt is a relative rarity in which Paray’s lyricism nicely complements the composer’s own darker and more dramatic 1930 EMI recording. Given Paray’s interpretive bent, perhaps the producer’s penchant for a melodramatic title would have been better served by "Life in the Shadows of Death."

  • "Marches and Overtures a la Francaise" -- Meyerbeer Coronation March. Gounod – Funeral March of a Marionette. Saint-SaensMarche Militaire francaise; Marche heroique. De Lisle – La Marseillaise (all 4/1959). Adam If I Were King Overture. BoieldieuLa Dame blanche Overture (both 11/1960). OffenbachLa belle Helene; Orpheus in the Underworld; The Tales of Hoffman, Suite (all 4/1959). Rossini – William Tell Overture (1/1959). 434 332-2 (1993).

  • "French Opera Highlights" -- Herold Zampa Overture (1/1960). Auber The Crown Diamonds Overture (1/1960). Gounod Ballet Music from "Faust". Saint-SaensBacchanale from "Samson and Delilah." BerliozRoyal Hunt and Storm from "The Trojans." Massanet – Overture to "Phedre." Thomas Gavotte from "Mignon (all 3/1962). Bizet Danse Boheme from "Carmen" (3/1961). 432-014-2 (1991).

I’ve grouped these together simply because they’re both miscellaneous hodge-podges, from the trite (the Marseillaise), to the obscure (the Gounod Funeral March,Paul Paray and the Detroit Symphony play lite French stuff better known as the theme from "Alfred Hitchcock Presents") to the out of place (what’s the Italian Rossini’s overture to an Italian opera whose action is set in Switzerland doing in a collection of French stuff?). Despite varying inspiration, all is played with precision, grace and authority. A special tribute to the natural recording quality – the gracious triangle in several pieces is a barely audible garnish, rather than the fire-alarm exaggeration in nearly every other multi-miked hi-fi extravaganza version.

  • BerliozSymphonie Fantastique (11/1959); Hungarian March (4/1959); Trojan March (4/1959); The Corsaire, Overture (3/1958); The Roman Carnival, Overture (3/1958). 434 328-2 (1993).

This is a fast and propulsive reading (45 minutes), which properly emphasizes the composer’s youthful, romantic obsession that generated the work.Paul Paray and the Detroit Symphony play Berlioz Paray plays particular attention to the interplay of instrumental colors long before this approach became de rigeur by the Norrington and Gardiner original-instrument recordings. He also creates strong rhythmic emphases, going so far as to accent every beat in the opening of the second Ball movement. The marches are beautifully played, if a bit staid, while the overtures are colorful, bright, and ardent.

  • Saint-Saens – Symphony # 3 in c ("Organ"), with Marcel Dupre, organist (10/1957). Paray – Mass for the 500th Anniversary of the Death of Joan of Arc, with Frances Yeend, soprano, Frances Bible, mezzo-soprano; David Lloyd, tenor, Yi-Kwei-Sze, bass and the Rackham Symphony Choir (10/1956). 432 719-2 (1991).

The "Organ" Symphony is cast in seething Teutonic mysticism and is usually played with booming bass and surging power. Paray lightens the textures and yields a lithe,Paul Paray and the Detroit Symphony play Saint-Saens and Paray supple and pointed reading in which inner voices are far more prominent than usual. It’s always fascinating and significant to hear a conductor’s own compositions in which they can reveal their own aesthetic outlook even more readily than when interpreting the instructions of others. Despite the gravity of its timeless theme, Paray’s own Mass, written in 1931, is a deeply beautiful work – ardent, lush and romantic, yet buoyant, refreshing and gracious. Without being blatantly innovative, it’s original enough to not sound derivative and is a work that should be far better known. With this example of how Paray chose to organize his own musical world, his application of similar principles to the music of others fits into place. The CD concludes with touching impromptu remarks Paray made to the performers upon concluding this recording session. More striking than the words themselves is the extreme difficulty with which he tried to express his thoughts in English years after assuming his position at the helm of a great American orchestra. Perhaps it only goes to show that despite cultural nationalism, music is indeed the most universal of all languages.

  • Debussy Iberia; La Mer; Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune (all 12/1955). Ravel Ma Mere l’Oye (3/1957). 434 343-2 (1994).

  • Debussy Nocturnes for Orchestra (3/1961); Petite Suite (4/1959). RavelDaphnis et Chloe Suite # 2 (3/1961); Valses Nobles et Sentimentales (4/1959); Bolero (3/1958). 434 306-2 (1992).

  • RavelRhapsodie Espagnole; alborada del Gracioso; Pavane pur une Infante defunte; La Valse. IbertEscales (all 3/1962). Ravel – Le Tombeau de Couperin (4/1959). 432 003-2 (1990).

When all is said and done, it comes down to this – one of the world’s greatest French conductors and one of the world’s Paul Paray and the Detroit Symphony play Debussy and RavelPaul Paray and the Detroit Symphony play Ravelfinest French orchestras playing the very essence of French music. All of these readings are fine but my favorite, and indeed my favorite of all of the Paray/DSO performances, is the final Rigaudon of Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin, which for me crystallizes the brilliance of the artists and of this entire series. The conductor and "his" orchestra transform Ravel’s gracious and respectful tribute to his cultural forbear into an ecstatic shout of joy. Played deliriously fast yet with breathtaking precision, this is a pure celebration of the apex of French culture – graceful yet powerful; complex yet elegant; understated yet deeply emotional; committed yet relaxed; respectful of tradition yet thoroughly modern; each instrument gleaming with individual pride yet perfectly nestled in the ensemble; utterly natural yet exquisitely polished; deeply cultured yet an invitation for all to enjoy and partake of its wonder. It’s a stunning tribute to these and so many other things.

Perhaps what we really have here, and throughout this entire series, is the sonic trace of a deeply human story. Paray’s extraordinary efforts to transform the Detroit Symphony into the world’s greatest French orchestra created a preserve for a dying tradition of which he was a final ambassador in an astoundingly unlikely place as geographically and culturally distant from its source as possible. These records testify to his success in meeting that daunting challenge, and deserve to be a proud and permanent part of not only the French cultural tradition but ours and everyone else’s as well.

Unfortunately, except for the Schumann Symphonies, none of Paray's mono recordings seems apt to be issued in the Mercury series. However, Paray fans do have one other resource – among the offerings of the Classical Recordings Archive of America are dozens of Paray concert CDs, including his last three full Detroit Symphony seasons, recorded by the musicians union and featuring repertoire from Bach to Mahler that he never taped in the studio. There's no website, but owner Nathan Brown can be reached at

Peter Gutmann

Copyright 1999 by Peter Gutmann

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