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Golden Age singers

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Faure songs
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

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Kaikhosru Shapurji SORABJI (1892-1988)
The Complete Songs for Soprano

Trois Poèmes (1918-19): Correspondances (Charles Baudelaire) [2:41];
Crépuscule du Soir Mystique (Paul Verlaine) [2:42]; Pantomime (Paul Verlaine) [1:26]
Chrysilla (Henri de Régnier) (1915) [3:01]
Roses du Soir (Pierre Louÿs) (1915) [3:01]
The Poplars (Jovan Ducic) (1915) [3:05]
L'heure Exquise (Paul Verlaine) (1916) [2:13]
Vocalise (1916) [2:21]
I was not Sorrowful (Ernest Dowson) (1917) [2:30]
l'Étang (Maurice Rollinat) (1917) [2:37]
Hymne à Aphrodite (Laurent Tailhade) (1916) [4:59]
Apparition (Mallarmé) (1916) [2:40]
Trois Chants: (1941): 13. Le Faune (Paul Verlaine) [1:31]; Les Chats (Baudelaire) [3:01]; La Dernière Fête Galante (Paul Verlaine) [2:33]
Trois Fêtes Galantes (1919?): l'Allée (Paul Verlaine) [2:44]; A la Promenade (Paul Verlaine) [2:57]; Dans la Grotte (Paul Verlaine) [2:02]
l'Irrémédiable (Charles Baudelaire) (1927) [6:10]
Arabesque (Shamsu'd Din Ibrahim Mirza) (1920) [1:37]
Elizabeth Farnum (soprano)
Margaret Kampmeier (piano)
Recorded Aug-Nov 1999 and Aug 2000: Patrych Sound Studios, Bronx, NY, DDD
CENTAUR CRC 2613 [56:01]


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These are premiere recordings and in some cases very likely premiere performances. It would be good indeed to think that as a result of this pioneering and excellently prepared disc by all concerned we would now be seeing Sorabji’s songs in the repertoire but it will not happen.

What a strange state. The music of a composer who deliberately did not promote himself and in the case of the piano music even forbade its performance. This is the music of a man who is unlikely ever to reach anything other than a minority audience and the music of a man whose songs are not only a major challenge for the singer but a mega challenge for the pianist. Indeed one could almost describe them as piano pieces with text. They cannot be performed by amateurs and probably only by distinguished students upwards, and then only if the scores can be hunted down. Some here have been especially edited. Yet, this music must be heard and the producers of this recording are making the statement that they believe in it and that it is of considerable merit and value.

As can be seen, the songs mostly date from no earlier than 1915 to 1919. They are all in French except for two. There is then a jump to 1927 and then to 1941. Is there a stylistic development? Yes.

1915 was the year when Sorabji, whilst preparing a book on Ravel, suddenly got the idea of composing himself. He was 23 and so a late developer. There is no doubt that these early songs are strongly influenced by Debussy, perhaps for example the ‘Trois Chansons de Bilitis’ of 1898 to texts by Debussy’s symbolist poet-friend Pierre Louÿs. Debussy himself wrote two sets of ‘Fêtes Galantes’ the second set (1904) to poems by Verlaine. Sorabji’s ‘Fêtes Galante’ also sets Verlaine including ‘La Faune’- memories of Debussy’s famous Prelude perhaps. These early songs also use whole tone scales and pentatonic scales. ‘La Dernière Fête Galante’ is one of the few pieces to be mostly diatonic in a Debussian sense.

Whereas Debussy looks at his texts as an outsider viewing from the wings, Sorabji is interested in the texts as a vehicle for decoration and elaboration. He often disguises personal emotion, although it most certainly does exist and can be found. For instance the first song on the CD,’Correspondances’, with a text by Baudelaire, hits a wonderful climax point at the end of verse three: "And others, corrupted, sumptuous and exultant". For the symbolists, poetry aspired to the condition of music as Mallarmé reputedly said. It is an essentially abstract art creating its own form and self-expression for constant re-interpretation and ambiguity. Sorabji said that his music aspired to be nothing more or less than a highly elaborate Persian carpet. It is decorated all over in a myriad shapes and colours which relate only to those in their immediate vicinity and not directly to any others. Their existence can only be explained in the context of the overall design.

The texts are important because Sorabji’s word painting is not obvious. Like the carpet, each line relates to its immediate successors and predecessors and exists to express the text. An individual word will rarely be ‘painted’ as you will find in English contemporaries like Warlock or Moeran or Gurney. Sadly, Centaur only gives us an English translation; no French texts at all. This is a silly decision and for a full price disc, unacceptable, Most of Sorabji’s songs are in French, and a difficult French to boot. We need the words for a full understanding of the songs. Elizabeth Farnum’s diction is outstanding and my French reasonably good but I still need the texts. It is important.

Lets look briefly at three songs to give you a taste of what to expect.

The ‘Hymne à Aphrodite’ (Aphrodite, immortal goddess of joyous laughter) is an amazingly competent piece for a man who has only been composing for a year. It is also very impassioned and, at nearly five minutes, quite long. The vocal line is in a constantly elevated state, with a massive climax after verse 1 and then an oscillating Debussian passage whilst the vocal part is restricted to one note. Then it passionately opens out into a flowery glade where, just occasionally the voice receives tangible support. Intensity builds to another climax and then an even greater one capped by a vocal top C and piano tremolandi. Darius Milhaud criticized this song and others for having too complex a piano part. What about the poor singer?

Moving to 1927 for the Baudelaire setting’L’Irrémédiable’ we come to longest song at just over six minutes. This is in Sorabji’s own mature style. The myriad cascades of opening notes is not only reminiscent of Schoenberg but is in fact atonal. The song proceeds in a sometimes pointillist manner and sometimes in an expressionist post-romantic language where the voice is forced to use the whole range. Again, (verse 3 "A poor wretch under the evil eye") we find more words incantated on single notes with steamy piano harmonies. This song takes harmony, virtuosity and vocal demands even further than ‘Aphrodite’.

Finally ‘La Faune’ from the Trois Chants of 1941.This song is roughly contemporaneous with the piano pieces like ‘St.Bertrand de Comminges’ where the textures have been thinned a little and the individual ideas given a little more identity. The piano writing is still extraordinarily complex however but there is a considerable effort at concentrating a vocal image into a smaller time span.

Elizabeth Farnum is terrific, she has made a speciality of contemporary music but this disc must have taken some preparation as can be seen from the recording dates. Margaret Kampmeier is, if anything, even more outstanding, mastering some of the most difficult accompaniments in the history of song-writing and never overbalancing the texture. The booklet notes, although small, are excellent with an essay and also commentary on each song or each set.

Gary Higginson



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