Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger:

Les papillons, op.2/3 (2), La dernière feuille, op.2/4 (3), La charme, op.2/2 (2), Sérénade italienne, op.2/5 (3), Hébé, op.2/6 (2), Le rideau de ma voisine (3), L'albatros (3), La nuit, op.11/1 (2, 4), Sérénade, op.13/2 (3), Le reveil, op.11/2 (2, 4), Nous nous aimerons (3), Chanson (2), L'âme de bois (3), Le temps de lilas (1), Printemps triste,op.8/3 (3), Nocturne,op.8/1 (2), Nos souvenirs,op.8/4 (2), Amour d'antan,op.8/2 (3), La cigale, op.13/4 (2), Nanny, op.2/1 (3), Le colibri, op.2/7 (2), La caravane, op.14 (3), L'aveu, op.13/3 (2), Les morts, op.17/1 (2), La pluie, op.17/2 (2), Apaisement, op.13/1 (3), Serres Chaudes, op.24 (1), 3 lieder de Camille Mauclair (2), Marins dévots à la vierge Marie (3), Dans le forêt du charme et de l'enchantement, op.36/2 (2), 2 Poèmes de Verlaine,op.34 (3), 3 Chansons de Shakespeare, op.28 (3 - Chanson de clown; 2 - Chanson d'amour & Chanson d'Ophélie), Chanson à l'épouse, op.36/1 (3), Chanson perpétuelle, op.37 (2, 5)
Felicity Lott (soprano) (1), Ann Murray (mezzo-soprano) (2), Chris Pedro Trakas (baritone) (3), Graham Johnson (pianoforte), with Geraldine McGreevy (soprano) (4), The Chilingirian Quartet (5).
HYPERION CDA67321/2 [2 CDs, 65.10, 65.02]
Crotchet   AmazonUK   AmazonUS

The Hyperion French Song Edition here takes in the thirty-six published songs, the two duets and 5 unpublished pieces. The sheer volume of work undertaken by Graham Johnson continues to amaze. In the booklet he provides a most readable introduction to Chausson's work, a biographical summary, notes on the poets and extremely detailed commentaries on each individual song. We also get the original texts and English translations. I suppose it would have been too much to provide all the notes in French and German too, but it would be a pity if such a great enterprise were to reach only the domestic British market.

As far as documentation is concerned, then, we get practically all we will ever need to know. How about the performances?

The least well-known factor is Chris Pedro Trakas. He has an extremely beautiful voice, well-suited to this repertoire, and is a high baritone able to get up to a sustained G with ease. Below C he has not much body to his sound and seems a little tremulous. Perhaps because of this, what mostly seems an attractive vibrato in the middle-upper register at times gives hints, under pressure, of something more disturbing. If the bottom end of the voice is not firmly anchored, the rest risks flying loose. This needs watching. His French vowels are not always quite convincing, especially the would-be nasal ones which come out a little too rounded, and he is regularly too heavy with weak syllables. It is true that, for example, the final "e" of douce is pronounced in French poetry and song while it is silent in speech, but not to the extent that the two syllables have the same weight. Compare all these points with the songs sung by the two principal ladies and the whole set risks becoming a demonstration of the difference between the right and the very-nearly-right. However, while I feel these things have to be commented on, I also want to emphasise that Trakas is also most sensitive to the twilit, half-spoken style of these songs, and shows a fine legato line where it is needed; these virtues far outweigh any reservations.

The lion's share goes to Ann Murray. She is a slightly anomalous mezzo-soprano, her bright tones almost suggesting a soubrette a third down whereas most mezzos are darker in tone. A few of the more melancholy songs might have benefited from a deeper hue but generally her timbre is convincingly French and it is a voice which, once heard, is not easily forgotten. She makes something memorable of most of her items. I immediately encored La cigale, and Chanson perpétuelle (with an excellent contribution from the Chilingirian Quartet) casts its sultry spell as well as ever.

Lott and Murray recorded the two duets together on an EMI disc entitled "Sweet Power of Song". Did contractual reasons prevent them from renewing the partnership? Geraldine McGreevy has a fresh-sounding voice but throws herself at her high notes in a way which is rather shown up by Murray's steady emission.

It is typical of the thoroughness of the enterprise that Lott and Johnson have re-recorded Le temps de lilas when there would perhaps have been nothing very reprehensible in recycling the version they made a few years ago for the Hyperion collection My Garden. Had they come to feel that version was too slow, for they have now shaved nearly half a minute off it? In theory, the slightly more flowing tempo of the new version is quintessentially French and should be preferable, but in reality the early version sounds as if they were discovering the song's beauty in that moment. It is an inspired "one-off" which they haven't quite repeated. The Serres chaudes cycle is wholly admirable.

What of Johnson himself? He is a real musician with a genuine feeling for all the music he plays. The readiness with which the leading singers of today work with him tells its own tale. I have recently attempted, while reviewing records featuring Alfred Brendel and Martha Argerich, to show how, with a really great pianist, every note counts. We can only imagine what a Gieseking might have made of the murmuring demi-semiquavers of Dans le forêt du charme et de l'enchantement or what Argerich could do with the later stages of Chanson d'amour. I would not dream of suggesting that Johnson actually leaves notes unplayed, yet the ear takes in a generalised murmur rather than a display of colour in which each note has its psychological weight. On this level Johnson has to be judged a skilful rather than a great pianist. I realise this sounds like nit-picking, but there is a risk that a package like this will be blandly accepted as definitive. Overall it is unlikely to be bettered, but let us remember that some great Chausson performances have come out in ones and twos over right through the history of the gramophone and will not be so easily surpassed. And frankly, treasurable as four or five of these mélodies are, the non-specialised listener might appreciate those four or five more in the context of a mixed recital of French song.

Christopher Howell

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