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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



FLEURS JETÉES: Songs by French Women Composers
Augusta HOLMÈS (1847-1903)

La belle Madeleine, Sérénade printanière, Parmi les meules, Chanson lointaine, La haine
Nadia BOULANGER (1887-1979) (* co-composed with Raoul Pugno)

Le ciel en nuit s’est déplié, Avec mes sens, avec mon coeur*, Vous m’avez dit*, Élégie, Soir d’hiver
Cécile CHAMINADE (1857-1944)

Madrigal, Chanson slave, Rêve d’un soir, Amoroso, Fleur jétée
Pauline VIARDOT-GARCIA (1821-1910)

Berceuse cosaque, Bonjour mon coeur, Sérénade florentine, Madrid
Rebecca de Pont Davies (mezzo-contralto), Clare Toomer (pianoforte)
Recorded in St. Paul’s Church, New Southgate, London, no date, published 1996
LORELT LNT109 [62.25]


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What is a mezzo-soprano? (2)

The first part of this survey consisted of some general comments and a review of Magdalena Kozena’s CD of arias by Mozart, Gluck and Myslivicek.

I raised the question whether Kozena is likely to continue labelling herself a mezzo-soprano for much longer and now move to the opposite extreme, for Rebecca de Pont Davies classes herself as a "mezzo-contralto". This is something I had not encountered before and I wish her curriculum had found space to say what she really means. As it is I can only report on the basis of my understanding of what I hear.

First of all, she is gifted with a voice which is gloriously rich in timbre in the octave which starts from middle C. It is that kind of voice which is sometimes described as "unwieldy" in the sense that it speaks slowly. When we describe a voice as "speaking" we refer to the time taken between attacking the note and the note’s finding its natural vibrations. Since most of the songs here are slow you can take one more or less at random and you will hear how there is an appreciable time-lapse before each long note rings out in all its glory. Whereas, with lighter voice-types, the voice "speaks" almost immediately. The prevalence of slow and sultry songs is presumably dictated by the fact that it is these which will show the singer to her best advantage.

Taking this first octave as her base, she is able to carry this rich sound right up to a G and even an occasional A. This could be one justification for the "mezzo-contralto" since a pure contralto is not normally expected to arrive quite so high. These high notes do not sound strained but they do seem to carry a colossal weight behind them. They express powerful emotions and I doubt that de Pont Davies could float them celestially as Magdalena Kozena and Cecilia Bartoli can.

She also shows, in Chaminade’s "Fleur jetée", that she can go right down to a low G with minimal use of chest tones, but she also exploits, to very exciting effect, her chest voice on the notes around middle C downwards. This would normally be done by a mezzo-soprano rather than a contralto and provides another justification for the "mezzo-contralto" label. If you compare the beginning of Chaminade’s "Chanson slave", where the use of chest-tones is quite blood-curdling, with the first stanza of the same composer’s "Rêve d’un soir", where notes just as low are sung in the "normal" voice, you will get a very good demonstration of the difference between the two techniques.

Now, this type of voice may not appeal universally (you may have read between the lines that I like it very much) but we should certainly thank Ms de Pont Davies for a useful voice definition, especially when so many mezzo-sopranos today seem almost real sopranos. What you may find inescapable is that the degree of sultry languor heard over the whole programme is a bit unvaried. This is particularly noticeable in the Nadia Boulanger settings which are signally lacking in the economy of utterance she expected from her pupils, and when she composes in tandem with Raoul Pugno they seem to go on for ever! Certainly Chaminade’s lighter touch brings heartfelt relief, and the more extrovert Viardot-Garcia settings find the singer really letting her hair down at last. The Irish-born Holmès also appears to best advantage when she shows her lighter side – "Sérénade printanière" is a particularly attractive piece. Whether these four composers really specialised in Chausson-like steaminess or whether the choice was made on the basis of the singer’s gravitation towards such pieces is raised by a comparison with Anne Sofie von Otter’s recent all-Chaminade CD (DG 471 331-2) which has no items in common with those here and which presents a completely different aspect of the composer. This disc will be reviewed as What is a mezzo-soprano? (3).

I hope I have made it adequately clear that Rebecca de Pont Davies has something very specially her own to offer. Her voice is a stunning instrument and, while it seems suitable for a limited range of music, this CD is assuredly worth the attention of all those who do not restrict their horizons to music they already know and performers that are household names.

Christopher Howell


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