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Ernest CHAUSSON (1855-1899)
Poème de l'amour et de la mer op.19 [25:26]*
Paul DUKAS (1865-1935)

Fanfare pour La péri [02:09], La péri (poème pour orchestre) [17:00]
Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)

Les nuits d'été op.7 [28:35]*
Elsa Maurus (mezzo-soprano)*
Orchestre Nationale Lille-Région Nord/Pas-de Calais/Jean-Claude Casadesus
Recorded 26th-28th February 2003, Auditorium du Nouveau Siècle, Lille, France
NAXOS 8.557274 [73:21]
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Some Naxos bargains have virtually reinvented our concept of what a "bargain basement" is - because they are equal or superior to anything to be found at top price. Others, alas, have not really been worth even the modest sum asked. This one conforms to the old-fashioned concept of "a good buy at the price" - straightforward, unfussy, musical performances by artists who are not trying to make points but just concentrate on doing a good job.

Elsa Maurus may not be the most subtle artist around. She doesn't command the sort of nuance you get from the young Victoria de los Angeles's Berlioz with Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. There's not exactly a personality to her singing that you remember, but she has the sort of dark, warm mezzo which is surely right for Chausson and at least three of the Berlioz (and the most important three, for which reason this cycle goes better with a low mezzo than a soprano even if the first song is inevitably heavy). She opens out thrillingly at climaxes though in quieter moments that same vibrato which is exciting in forte prevents an ideal focus in piano. Oddly enough, the first phrase of "Le temps de lilas" is sung with a hushed intensity which might have been employed more often - her phrasing is musical but rather generalized. Still, these are performances you can reliably use to get to know the music. Incidentally, Maurus sings the optional low F flat in "Sur les lagunes" with evident ease - not even all contraltos would attempt that. In short, if you are in the mood for a decadent wallow you should find this right up your street.

While the de los Angeles recording was fortunate in having a leading Berlioz conductor on the rostrum, some other distinguished singers (Elly Ameling and Frederica von Stade were two such that came my way recently) were hampered by a conductor who apparently sleepwalked through the sessions. Here again, we are fortunate in a conductor who provides all the warmth and colour needed, who does not allow the Chausson to become turgid and who, on his own, provides a suitably hedonistic reading of Dukas's second best-known work.

Dukas seems to have been a bit of a victim of coincidences. The conservative idiom will lead you to suppose that Stravinsky pinched a theme for his "Firebird" from the older composer, but "Firebird" was actually written a year before "La péri". The question is, had Dukas heard it yet? Just as the bassoon theme from "L'apprenti sorcier" was "cribbed" by Holst in his slightly later "Planets", yet Holst assured us that he had not heard the Dukas piece at the time he wrote "The Planets".

The recordings reproduce easily and well, texts are provided with translations and an excellent essay by - would you believe it? - Keith Anderson. I'm beginning to wonder if this isn't a synonym for four or five different writers. Could one man write so many notes, and good ones too, and when does he find time to eat and sleep?

In short, if you don't have these works - and the Chausson is a gorgeous piece - or indeed, at this price, if you have one or two of them but not all three, this disc is well worth your money.

Christopher Howell

see also review by John Quinn


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