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Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924)
The Complete Songs – Volume 1

Les Matelots; Seule!; Chanson du pêcheur; Barcarolle; Tarantelle; Au bord de l’eau
Les berceaux; Au cimetière; Larmes; Cinq melodies "de venise"; Pleurs d’or; Accompagnement; La fleur qui va sur l’eau; Mirages; C’est la paix;
L’horizon chimérique.
Felicity Lott (soprano); Jennifer Smith (soprano); Geraldine McGreevy (soprano);
Stella Doufexis (soprano); John Mark Ainsley (tenor); Christopher Maltman (baritone); Stephen Varcoe (baritone); Graham Johnson (piano)
Recorded 2002-2004
HYPERION CDA67333 [68:47]
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Hyperion has launched another ‘French Songs’ series with this excellent recording. As usual, the meticulous, yet lightly worn scholarship of Graham Johnson is evident from the very fulsome, informative and entertaining notes, not only on Fauré, his life (a six-page time-line no less) and his development as a song writer, but also, one guesses, the choice of soloists according to the songs and choice of repertoire for the album. The latter must have presented some difficulty because Fauré’s development as a song-writer passed through three creative stages and to accord an album to each might prove to be a somewhat tedious listening experience. Wisely, therefore, each of the four planned albums have been built around specific themes – this first one on the theme of Au bord de l’eau - both the title of one of the composer’s most famous mélodies and a reminder of Fauré’s fascination with aquatic and nautical subjects. Like Schubert, Fauré was drawn to the musical possibilities of water and its movement. The songs chosen are presented in chronological order across the three periods.

Fauré’s three periods covered: 1) the young salon charmer – the songs outwardly charming but always interesting and often deeper; 2) the mature master tending towards ever-deepening musical experimentation; and 3) the challenging music of the ‘inscrutable sage’. Fauré’s mélodies are elegance and refinement par excellence. As Graham Johnson so aptly writes: "His music has some eerie affinity with the elevated logic of Bach’s harmonic world; as a poet of the keyboard Fauré had much in common with Schumann; as a sheer mastery of harmony, with Chopin. As he grew older his harmonic means became less restless, but ever more profound. Contained passion was replaced by intense serenity."

Of the 26 songs in this collection I would mention a representative few. The opening song has the strong yet sensitive voice of Christopher Maltman in Les matelots (The sailors) (1870) a song of transition as Fauré’s early romantic style achieves the greater depths of the mélodie. It is powered by undulating triplets that reflect the fathomless motion of the sea but there are also unexpected harmonic shifts and shadings as the sailors express their love of sea adventure. Fauré’s songs include thirteen diverse barcarolles. The delectable Op. 7 No. 3 Barcarolle (1873), decorated by Italianate acciaccature and redolent of Italian bitter-sweet romance, dates from October 1873. It is sung ardently and in a lovely legato, bel canto line by John Mark Ainsley. The Tarantelle (1873) is a little Neapolitan gem that taxes both the pianist and the soloists – a duet sung by Geraldine McGreevy and Stella Doufexis - voices intertwining in ever-increasing speed and ever-increasingly complex spirals.

The title song of the album, and quintessential Fauré, music of sublime drift, Au bord de l’eau (1875) is sung by Felicity Lott making it a perfect summer idyll with just the right touch of melancholy to add the lie to the thought that love will survive the passage of time.

Moving forward some sixteen years in Fauré’s career, Felicity Lott also sings the Cinq mélodies "de Venise" (1891) (five Venetian melodies). To mention but two: the opening Mandoline has all the surface languor of the pampered in a Watteau painting but the elegant sophistication of Fauré and the expressive subtleties of Lott and Johnson reveal cracks in this veneer of heartless elegance to show glimpses of deep feeling and wry humour; and En sourdine (Muted), one of the Fauré song favourites, traces a lovers’ afternoon assignation, fronds of semiquavers rippling between the pianists’ hands suggesting half-light and languid caresses while the intrusion of the word ‘désespoire’ suggests a forbidden clandestine tryst.

Jennifer Smith is joined by John Mark Ainsley, both caught beguilingly in the luxurious sensuality of the haunting Pleurs d’or (Tears of gold) (1896), the accompaniment like "holy water in a state of suspension ...dew on the rose-petalled surface of the music.

We are in the late period of Fauré’s creativity when we hear the immaculate voice of Stephen Varcoe singing the four songs of Mirages (1919). All beguile the ear. As Johnson observes in his notes for Cygne sur l’eau (Swan on the water).the opening chords of the accompaniment as well as the rising vocal line recall the song ‘Lydia’. "Thus the composer is at one with himself from fifty-four years earlier. The transformation from one age to another has been gradual and organic…" Johnson further suggests that Fauré (now beset with hearing difficulties and illness) is "a haughty monarch on the ‘shores of ennui’", existing in "fathomless waters of dreams and delusion, "Of echo, of mist, of night"’. The delectable limpid Jardin (Nocturnal garden) with its gentle moto perpetuo, reflecting the inscrutable, simply haunts. Danseuse (Dancer) gently modulates as the dancer strikes supposedly Greek classical attitudes to Dionysiac rhythms – here is a song at once erotic yet with typical Fauré pudeur.

An excellent beginning to what promises to be another memorable Hyperion French Song collection. 26 Fauré songs to enchant the ear.

Ian Lace

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