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Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924)
The Complete Songs – Volume 3

Puisque j’ai mis ma lèvre* [3’10]
Tristesse d’Olympio** [5’34"]
Hymne Op. 7, No.2** [2’16"]
Sylvie Op. 6, No. 3* [2’19"]
Poème d’un jour Op. 21* [5’45"]
Nell Op. 18, No. 1*** [1’58"]
Notre amour Op. 23, No.2 **** [1’52"]
Le secret Op. 23, No. 3**** [2’16"]
Chanson d’amour Op. 27, No. 1*** [2’05"]
Fleur jetée Op. 39, No. 1* [1’26"]
Les presents Op. 46, No. 1*** [1’56"]
Shylock Op. 57*** [15’50"]
Sérénade: Le bourgeois gentilhomme* [1’21"]
La bonne chanson Op. 61***** [21’11"]
Le ramier Op. 87, No.2** [1’50"]
Le don silencieux Op. 92****** [2’20"]
****Dame Felicity Lott (soprano);****** Jennifer Smith (soprano);*John Mark Ainsley (tenor);*** Jean-Paul Fouchécourt (tenor);*****Christopher Maltman (baritone); ** Stephen Varcoe (baritone)
Graham Johnson with Ronan O’Hora - Shylock only – (piano)
Recorded on various dates in 2002, 2003 and 2004. DDD
The Hyperion French Song Edition
HYPERION CDA67335 [72:42]

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I have enjoyed very much the previous two CDs in this series, both of which have been warmly received here. In fact, I was one of those who praised Volume Two. The songs were recorded over a three year period, using a number of singers, and very sensibly, now that Hyperion have got all the songs "in the can" they are releasing the CDs in fairly rapid succession so that collectors following the series don’t have too long to wait between releases.

To recap very quickly, Graham Johnson, the moving spirit behind this venture, has decided on a novel approach, grouping the songs not chronologically but instead in four broad thematic groups, one per CD, within each of which the songs are then presented in chronological order. Previously it has crossed my mind that Johnson’s thematic groups have been stretched a bit broadly by some of the songs which he has included. In the case of this third collection, however, I think that the songs fit fairly comfortably within his theme, Chanson d’amour.

Because Graham Johnson has chosen to use a variety of singers in this project and to allot songs to them in some or each of the separate programmes there is a risk that a particular CD will sound fragmented. Oddly enough, despite the fact that about thirty per cent of the present disc is taken up with one cycle, La bonne chanson, I found myself feeling a little more aware of an element of disunity on this occasion than had been the case with the preceding volumes. For example, it seemed odd on the face of it to have one song, Fleur jetée, sung by John Mark Ainsley, positioned in between two other songs sung by his fellow tenor, Jean-Paul Fouchécourt, whose voice is so different. However, having said that I guess that Johnson has chosen vocal horses for courses and it seems to me that Ainsley’s bigger voice and his ability to sing with a more heroic, ringing timbre is better suited to the song than his colleague’s lighter, more heady voice would have been. So, if one accepts the chronological ordering within each programme (which I do) then I think one has to go along with hearing different singers cheek by jowl, as it were, so as to get the right voice matching each song.

One of Graham Johnson’s objections to following a strict chronological presentation of Fauré’s entire output of mélodies is that the collector would not necessarily want a CD containing nothing but early songs. I think he’s right. The first four songs on this CD, composed between 1862 and 1878 didn’t really engage my attention, pretty though they are. It’s only with the short cycle of three songs, Poème d’un jour (1878) that one really feels that Fauré had found his voice as a songwriter, especially in terms of his responsiveness to texts. The first and third songs in this little collection (it’s arguable whether it’s truly a cycle) seem to me particularly to represent a compositional step forward. John Mark Ainsley sings them all very well.

The major offering in the collection is the mature cycle, La bonne chanson (1892-94). Here we find the composer at the zenith of his powers. The cycle is allotted to Christopher Maltman and this proves to be a judicious choice for, as my colleague Christopher Howell rightly observes in his review of this CD, his voice is more refulgent than that of his colleague, Stephen Varcoe. I’ve always liked Varcoe’s voice but I think it would not be ideally suited to these songs, as it now seems to lack the amplitude that they ideally need. Maltman makes a very good job of them. To my ears he is responsive and imaginative, his French sounds good and he sings expressively without ever overstating his case. There are many felicitous touches, not the least of which is his delivery of the final line ‘C’est l’heure exquise’ in the third song, ‘La lune blanche’ (track 23). His singing of this phrase is beautifully poised and, for me, marks him out as an artist of no little sensitivity. But turn to the very next song, ‘J’allais par des chemins perfides’ and you find him just as capable of robust, impassioned singing.

The way the songs have fallen in this volume means that, sadly, we hear little of the female singers that Johnson has assembled for this project. Felicity Lott sings her two songs enchantingly but the sole song given to Jennifer Smith does not allow her to make much of an impression.

I was fascinated to hear the pieces from Fauré’s incidental music for the play, Shylock. There are six numbers. Two are vocal, disarmingly sung by Jean-Paul Fouchécourt. In these Johnson accompanies him. The remaining four numbers are heard in an arrangement for two pianos made, with Fauré’s consent, by the composer, Léon Boëllmann. These are very rare and were only discovered by chance by Graham Johnson some years ago. I’ve only ever heard Fauré’s music in its more familiar orchestral guise and Johnson warns listeners that there are differences between the two versions. The arrangements seem to me to work reasonably well and the ‘Nocturne’ is an especially lovely piece, even if two pianos can’t quite match orchestral strings for delicacy, even when the pianists play as well as they do here.

I believe this CD is a worthy successor to the two previous volumes. The standard of singing is high and, need one say it, the standard of Graham Johnson’s accompaniment is as high as one would expect from him. His notes, as usual, are a mine of information and informed opinion and he manages to be erudite but at all times eminently readable. Hyperion provide the full French texts with English translations and good recorded sound merely heightens the listener’s pleasure.

This series is proving to be a significant addition to the Fauré discography. I welcome this CD as enthusiastically as I look forward to Volume Four and the completion of the project.

John Quinn

See also review by Christopher Howell

Other reviews

Volume 1 Ian Lace Recording of the Month February

Volume 2 John Quinn

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