At the time this recording was made the pianist, Irène
Aïtoff was 88 years old. She began her career as accompanist to
Yvette Guilbert (1932-39), then worked for 10 years with Charles Münch.
She was made choir director of the Festival de Aix-en-Provence and later
worked with Karajan on some of his French opera projects (Pelléas
et Mélisande and Carmen). I can only say that she
shows such a remarkable nimbleness in a song like Les gazons sont
verts (track 10) that I can hardly believe she played it any better
all those years ago, nor is there any lack of strong tone where required
(hear the sizzling start of Voyage à Paris), and you wouldnít
think there was any generation-gap from the sort of collaboration we
hear in Fêtes galantes (track 23). There is not quite a
Gieseking-like sheen to the tone, but Gieseking played on a Steinway
which Debussy for one didnít like, so this is French music as its composers
expected it to sound. The only criticism is that the engineers, justly
proud of the grande dame, have balanced the recording just very
slightly in her favour.
No doubt the young baritone Franck Leguérinel
benefited enormously from her experience, but you canít put talent into
a person who has none and he shows plenty of gifts on his own account.
He always manages a natural delivery of the words, clear but without
mannerisms which might break the line. He phrases with much musicality
and genuinely beautiful tone. I was just a little concerned about a
waveriness which for the moment passes as an attractive vibrato but
which may create problems later. However, it is not in the nature of
the programme to let us hear him in a long, sustained legato, and when
eventually something of that kind crops up, La grenouillère
(track 20) or Dernier poème, the verdict is favourable.
The record comes with an introduction by Pierre Jourdan, General and
Artistic Director of the Théâtre Imperial de Compiègne,
which tells how the disc was the fruit of an audition which made him
sit up at the end of a boring afternoon and also states his intention
to make a similar disc every year. After a trawl through the Internet
I can find no evidence that this was done, though Leguérinel
seems very active in European opera houses. A review of the Plasson
recording of Lakmé took issue with the provincial standards of
the minor parts, and in particular with the "shaky" Frederic
of Leguérinel. So it sounds as if my fears might have been founded.
But on the other hand he received a rave review elsewhere for his performance
of Poulencís Le bal masqué on Naxos, so I suspend judgement.
What we have here suggests he had, in 1992, the capacity to become a
much-valued guide to the French mélodie, and I should like to
know if he has in fact done so.
All this amounts to a thoroughly recommendable disc
of mélodies. I would only point out that the programme
chosen is, in spite of the presence of Gounod, a fairly uncompromising
one. Listeners who enjoy the orchestral and piano music of Debussy and
Ravel but do not know their mélodies are advised that
they may not, at first, find the same enchantment here. This is because
these composers saw it as their business to put the words first. In
fact, if you persevere, always concentrating on the texts (which are
provided with English translations) you will find that musical motives
and a tight musical construction start to lodge themselves in your head.
But you will have to work at least as hard as you do with, say, Hugo
Wolf, for this music is not, overall, as obviously "beautiful"
as is that of the three composers of mélodies who are
most obviously not included: Fauré, Chausson and Duparc. Over