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