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Faure songs
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

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Half-Close Your Eyes: The Verlaine Songbook
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)

3 Mélodies de Verlaine (1891)*
Mandoline (1882)*
Ariettes oubliées*
Fêtes galantes, Set 1 (1891)*
Fêtes galantes, Set 2 (1904)**
Gustave CHARPENTIER (1860-1950)

Chanson d’automne (1890)**
Charles BORDES (1863-1909)

Colloque sentimental**
Reynaldo HAHN (1875-1947)

Fêtes galantes(1892)*
Offrande (1891)*
POLDOWSKI (Irene Wieniawska) (1880-1932)

Arthur HONEGGER (1892-1955)

Un grand sommeil noir**
Josef SZULC (1875-1956)

Clair de lune, op.83/1*
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)

The sky above the roof (1908)**
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)

Sur l’herbe (1907)**
Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934)

Il pleure dans mon coeur (1896)*
Charles KOECHLIN (1867-1950)

La chanson des ingénues, op.22/1 (1900-1)**
Lisa Milne (soprano)*, Susan Bickley (mezzo-soprano)**, Iain Burnside (piano)
Recorded at The Warehouse, London, 27th February 2002**, 28th February-1st March 2002*
Released by arrangement with the BBC
BLACK BOX BBM1073 [63:50]


This disc is part of a series which aims to make available to the wider public some of the recordings made for BBC Radio 3’s "Voices" series, masterminded by Iain Burnside. The present collection is based around the poetry of Paul Verlaine, with Debussy as the leitmotif but with space for some fairly rare material along the way. The omission of Fauré is deliberate – this will be for another project.

The idea is so attractive that I feel sorry to have to list a series of smallish niggles which have the cumulative effect of making the disc less enjoyable than it might have been. In the arpeggios which open "La mer est plus belle" Debussy didn’t actually ask for an accent on the lower note of each arpeggio, but they come on the strong beats. If you don’t make accents the ear will hear the upper note as the most important one, and Debussy’s powerfully pulsating ocean is replaced, as here, by an amorphous Technicolor splurge. And then, at "Nourrice fidèle" on the second page, there’s a sudden drop from "forte" to "piano" which, if done correctly, makes an awesome effect, rather like a film camera suddenly cutting to another part of the seascape. This performance evens all the dynamics out and so does not give more than a generalised impression of the music. It also seems strange, when the score specifically says "mezzo-soprano or baritone", and there’s a mezzo-soprano waiting in the wings, to allot this first Debussy group to the soprano. It’s not so much a question of range (since the songs lie between B and F sharp anyone from a high soprano to a contralto could theoretically cope with them), it’s a question of timbre. Debussy surely wanted a darker sound than we are likely to get from a pure soprano. There are other songs in this programme where I wondered if the right singer was being used.

To return to my niggles about the pianist, the repeated Bs in the third bar of "L’échelonnement des haies" are accented but not staccato in my score, and at the end of "Mandoline" Debussy asked for the lower G to be held in the pedal, while Burnside plays it "sec", as at the beginning (where Debussy put no marking). Do these little things matter so much? Well, if Debussy wrote them in his score I suppose he wanted them done, and people who play his music must expect to be taken to task if they ignore them. A completely different matter might be an avowedly re-creative interpretation, which asks to be taken on its own terms.

As well as much of the Debussy, the rare Szulc song is one which calls for comparison with the classic Maggie Teyte version. Burnside is accomplished enough in the introduction but with Gerald Moore the bell-like sounds and the semi-quavers which weave around them seem to be two independent things – another world of pianistic achievement. And just listen to how Teyte places the words "charmants masques et bergamasques" to hear the difference between God-given interpretation and just reasonably good singing. Even before I checked back to the older version I was unconvinced by Milne’s and Burnside’s impatient treatment of the second stanza of this song. Teyte and Moore gain infinitely by keeping it spacious. Milne might also compare her own loose vibrato on the higher notes with Teyte’s steady production when she was getting on for sixty, and wonder what she herself will sound like at the same age if she doesn’t take the matter in hand.

Fortunately Susan Bickley has a steadier vocal production allied with more considered interpretations. I enjoyed all her contributions. I also felt that Burnside himself, perhaps as a result of working with a singer whose own ideas were clearer, acquitted himself better. He does not attempt Cortot’s "prepared piano" effect in "Le faune" but then, Debussy didn’t ask him to. Did either Teyte or Cortot have personal knowledge from the composer about this, I wonder? While the superiority of Teyte over Milne is clear in the first set of "Fêtes galantes", matters are much more even in the second set. As the more "modern" singer, Bickley allows slightly more "bel canto" legato than Teyte, which creates a more musical effect in songs which can risk sounding like poems for the piano with a semi-spoken vocal line glued on. Furthermore, Bickley’s legato singing doesn’t prevent her from treating the words with imagination. At "c’est possible" in "colloque sentimental" which concludes the disc, she beats Teyte at her own game.

This is a disc I shall value for the programme itself and for Bickley’s contributions, and maybe also for Burnside’s accompanying essay, informative and readable. Just to complete my catalogue of niggles, the translation in the booklet of the poem set by Vaughan Williams is completely different from the one the composer actually used. More care please!

Christopher Howell


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