‘Accordions play and the street is alive with song’ pronounces Edith Piaf as her band, led by Robert Chauvigny, strike up the opening swell of C’est Pour Ca and immediately we are transported to the Rive Gauche ensconced in a fog of Gauloises and the aroma of a deep red wine enveloping us in the musical cacophony. That it is a performance at New York’s prestigious Carnegie Hall in January 1957 is a testament to Piaf’s ability to not allow the song to inhibit her but rather inhabit her thus transporting herself and her audience to the very heart and soul of the songs origins. It is this that has secured Piaf’s legend as a ‘monsteur sacre’ and it is her legend rather than the music which survives in the general public’s consciousness; alongside Billie Holliday, Judy Garland and other doyennes of doom she ranks as one of the greats in her sphere. Whether this legend transfers itself to disc is another matter as any recording would therefore have to take on the mantel of being an aural time machine. Fortunately for Piaf her performance at Carnegie Hall-severely edited from the overlong 1977 edition- shows itself, in the main, to be an essential document in her legacy.
After the Parisian swirl of the opening number the next song Je T’ai Dans La Peau slows things down a little and Piaf lends her beautifully pitched tones to a more romantic side that is almost melting in its beauty with each syllable loaded with poignancy and significance. This is followed up by Lovers for a Day sung in English with perfect phrasing and a sense of frustration that encapsulates the troubles of the fated lovers of the lyric. Probably nowhere on the disc does Piaf emote as convincingly as she does on this performance. The intrusion of a breaking glass-‘Shine another glass/let the hours pass’ bemoans Piaf- at the songs denoument articulates many of the frustrations and the sound of shattered dreams of the songs protagonists as concisely as the lyrics and the sympathetic vocal performance. Les Grognard’s is slightly less successful relying more on musical dramatic flourishes which with an overwrought vocal simply lend it the aura of slight overkill.
C’est a Hambourg settles Piaf on more suitable terrain once again and with a heartfelt intro- Piaf’s perfectly enunciated English spoken interludes are what afford this recording its own sense of the special- she draws another stunning performance out of the depths of her soul. Unfortunately Heaven Have Mercy is another overwrought performance that has not traversed through time as successfully as the other numbers on this disc and once again overkill is to the fore. La Groulande De Pauvre Jean restores balance and along with Padam Padam is an irresistible delight showing that Piaf can do upbeat alongside melancholy with no sense of compromise. Autumn Leaves meanwhile provides another highlight with the weeping violins shadowing the cascading sadness of her vocal beautifully. The closing number Mariage provides a fitting finale whilst its musical conclusion with a particularly sombre rendition of Here Comes the Bride brings another tragic tale to its ill fated end.
As an aural document of one of the great musical icons of the 20th century Edith Piaf at Carnegie Hall is an essential purchase. The live performance was an area where Piaf shone with her rawness and resilience in the ascendant-her studio recordings seem tame in comparison as if the confines of the studio confined her emotions- though the absence of her better known numbers may disappoint any recent converts to her work. For the purist and devotees however it is a work that adds to rather than detracts from the legacy. Encore!