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Faure songs
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Songs of Debussy and Mozart
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)

Beau soir; Pierrot; Apparition; Pantomime; Fêtes galante (1st book) – En sourdine; Fantouche; Clair de lune; Ariettes oubliées – C’est l’extase langoureuse; Il pleure dans mon coeur; L’ombre des arbres; Chevaux de bois; Green; Spleen
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)

Dans un bois solitaire KV 308; Oiseaux, si tous les ans KV 307; Warnung KV 472; Der Zauberer KV 472; Das Veilchen KV 476; Sehnsucht nach dem Frühlinge KV 596; Als Luise die Briefe ihres untreuen Liebhabers verbrannte KV 520; Abendempfindung KV 523
Juliane Banse (soprano)
Andras Schiff (piano)
Recorded January 2001, Reitstadel, Neumarkt
ECM NEW SERIES 1772 [60’04]


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It is always worth expecting the unexpected with labels like ECM. They constantly keep you on your toes. Songs by Debussy and Mozart is the title, and one may well ask where the link could possibly be. Well, Mozart has been credited with something approaching the first French mélodie, settings of two French texts designed to woo his Parisian audience. In reality, they sound light years away from the harmonic adventurousness of Debussy’s Symbolist settings (which form the bulk of the disc), and are best seen as contrasting items in what is a very enjoyable recital.

Much of the credit for that enjoyment must go to artists involved. I was alerted to the voice of Juliane Banse by a DG disc of 2nd Viennese School music, in particular the glorious Altenberg Lieder by Berg. Those settings, which border on musical impressionism for richness and colour of orchestral palette, made me want to hear her in Debussy. Well, here it is, albeit with piano, and it does not disappoint. Banse’s subtle, dark-toned soprano is ideal for much of this material, the most inspired of which are settings of Paul Verlaine poems. Debussy admired Verlaine all his life, and the shadowy, half-lit world of that great monument to Symbolism, Pelléas et Mélisande, is never far away. In truth most of the settings are quite early, so can be seen in some ways as a dry run for the vocal style of his operatic masterpiece. She is particularly successful in conveying the emotion behind each poem, whether it is the evocation of nature in Beau soir, or the more nightmarish melancholy of Mallarmé’s Apparition. The only question mark comes in the somewhat forced tone of the higher tessituras or climactic moments – try 1’20 into track 2, where she sounds a tad strained on the higher notes. These are very fleeting moments, however, for most of these settings lie in a perfect register for her voice, and she makes the most of it. As indeed does Andras Schiff, whose credentials in Mozart are cast iron but less well known in Debussy. It’s good to report that his superb musicianship helps Banse at every turn, and his clarity of finger work (helped here by his usual choice of instrument, a bright-ish Bösendorfer) ensures no sentimentality or cloying pedal effects hold up proceedings unnecessarily.

The Mozart items are an unqualified success. The French settings are certainly of interest, but musically his mature (K523) song Abendempfindung (Thoughts of Eventide) holds one throughout with its elaborate range and depth of emotion, a virtual mini-operatic scena. I had realised by this time in the recital how the two composers were complementing each other, two great musical minds a century apart responding to their favourite poetry, as well as the beauty (and challenge) of setting for soprano and piano.

The recording, as one has come to expect from ECM, is demonstration worthy, with clarity, transparency and depth in perfect measure. No texts are included, and we are encouraged to download from the website (12 pages of it, but in good, readable print and translations). The booklet is devoted to a rather ponderous essay entitled Mozart, Debussy and the law by Jacques Drillon, where we are treated to a discourse on how Debussy broke with the laws of tonality exemplified in the Classical era by Mozart. This is fine, but lets itself down by the style of its prose. Try this; "Until Marx and Freud, it was normal, and almost inevitable, that Daddy Bear had a big bowl, Mummy Bear had a medium-sized bowl, and Baby Bear a little bowl. Now all that was turned on its head. Mummy Bear is drinking out of the big bowl, Baby Bear finds that his bowl is enormous, and Daddy Bear just isn’t thirsty". Entertaining, but really enlightening or appropriate? Ah well, the music’s the thing, and this disc is the perfect spring serenade.

Tony Haywood



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