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Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924)
The Complete Songs – 3
Chanson d’amour: Love song

Puisque j’ai mis ma lèvre [03:10] (1); Tristesse d’Olympio [03:34] (2); Hymne op.7/2 [02:16] (2); Sylvie op.6/3 [02:19] (1); Poème d’un jour op.21 [05:45] (1); Nell op.18/1 [01:58] (3); Notre amour op.23/2 [01:52] (4); Le secret op.23/3 [02:16] (4); Chanson d’amour op.27/1 [02:05] (3); Fleur jetée op.39/1 [01:26] (1); Les présents op.46/1 [01:56] (3); Shylock op.57 [15:50] (3; 7); Sérénade: Le bourgeois gentilhomme [01:21] (1); La bonne chanson op.61 [21:11] (5); Le ramier op.87/2 [01:50] (2); Le don silencieux op.92 [02:20] (6)
John Mark Ainsley (tenor) (1), Stephen Varcoe (baritone) (2), Jean-Paul Fouchécourt (tenor) (3), Dame Felicity Lott (soprano) (4), Christopher Maltman (baritone) (5), Jennifer Smith (soprano) (6), Graham Johnson (piano), with Ronan O’Hora (piano) (7)
Recorded on various dates in 2002, 2003 and 2004, venue(s) not given
HYPERION CDA67335 [72 :42]


Perhaps it is to my disadvantage that I did not have the opportunity to hear the first two volumes of this series, of which one more is to come; as it is, it is not entirely clear to me what philosophy lies behind Graham Johnson’s grouping of songs and singers.

It would appear that, as in his great Schubert edition, he intends to plan each disc according to a theme; however, while this may be a plausible way of orienting the listener among the bewildering number of separate songs which comprise the larger part of Schubert’s output, in Fauré’s case we have the composer’s opus numbers as a reasonable chronological guide, into which the few unnumbered songs could be slipped quite easily.

Furthermore, the sheer number of songs by Schubert meant that the discs could be arranged by theme and allotted each to a single singer (with very few exceptions). Here we have two complete cycles, the Shylock music and pickings from the other opus numbers sung by two sopranos, two tenors and two baritones – with a second pianist for good measure in the Shylock interludes. The whole thing becomes redolent of one of those end-of-term conservatoire concerts where a bunch of singers appear one by one, each singing a couple of pieces and then, just as you are beginning to tune in to their particular interpretative personality, giving way to another. In the end it sounds more like a string of singers auditioning to make a Fauré record than the real thing.

We therefore find ourselves comparing and contrasting a light but creamy British tenor with a reedy, nasal French one – an acquired taste, but perhaps worth acquiring in this repertoire, especially when handled with such quiet ease. We can compare two British baritones who have been found (not only by me) to be a shade too ready with their vibrato and their off-the-voice pianos, and discover that, heard side by side, Maltman is the more refulgent in tone. In a total of 04’ 08" we are reminded of Dame Felicity Lott’s creamy-voiced, easy-soaring Straussian soprano (well restrained for the present purpose); in comparison, Jennifer Smith, in the 02’ 20" allotted to her, seems to be struggling to emerge and her darker tones suggest she may really be a mezzo. With a whole (or even half) disc at her disposal, maybe she would prove a highly communicative artist (as we know Lott to be). So in the end, only Christopher Maltman, who gets the major cycle "La bonne chanson", has the time to engage us fully.

However, while the recital is bitty and disparate in one sense, in another it consistently presents one view of how Fauré should be performed. Johnson’s copious notes are replete with warnings to performers who take alternative views. Of "Notre amour" he remarks that this piece is "often heard as a breathless patter song … performers should observe the composer’s Allegretto, a marking that suggests a certain élan while avoiding a demented gabble". Would he consider Nathalie Stutzmann’s performance (on RCA) a "demented gabble", or would he recognize a performer ready to take risks, willing to go near the top but not (to my ears) quite over it? Maybe he would not, for in that case he would have to admit that Dame Felicity is here sedate if not actually genteel.

In the brief cycle "Poème d’un jour" and in the exquisite masterpiece "Nell", by comparing the Stutzmann versions with those here, we can hear two different approaches to the composer at work. Both Ainsley and Fouchécourt are refined, elegant and sensitive. Stutzmann and her pianist, Catherine Collard – French musicians born and bred – are more fulsome, more obviously engaged. They reveal Fauré as a composer of flesh and blood, they sing him. You’d better try to decide, from my description, which view you will prefer – but Stutzmann has only recorded 27 of the songs.

Another question is that of transpositions. Johnson carefully documents the original keys and the keys used. I’ve already raised this point in connection with Helmut Deutsch’s Brahms cycle. It is perfectly natural, when one singer gives a recital of songs by a given composer, that they should be transposed into the key suited to his or her voice. The pianist then does his best to prevent the piano part from sounding grumpy (if transposed down) or tinny (if transposed up). But if you are going to call on a roster of singers for a complete edition, why ever not call on the singer who is able to do each song as written? It does affect the piano part – imagine a performance of Chopin’s preludes with most of the pieces transposed into different keys.

And finally, since obviously this is a day when I got out of bed the wrong side, it’s an intriguing idea to have the two Shylock songs set into context with arrangements of the orchestral movements by Boëllmann, but in all truth only the last movement is effective in this form. It is only too obvious that the others were conceived with orchestral sonorities in mind.

So, to conclude, there is no doubt that Fauré is an important song-writer who deserves a complete edition; this particular pilgrimage appears to be the fourth, its predecessors being Gérard Souzay and Elly Ameling with Dalton Baldwin (EMI), Sarah Walker and Tom Krause with Malcolm Martineau (CRD) and Nathalie Dessay, Béatrice Uria-Monzon, Jean-Paul Houchécourt and Françoix Le Roux with Jeff Cohen (REM). It has all the cards on the table to be a classic version, yet I wonder if the form of presentation chosen will not be to its disadvantage. Still, if you buy all four discs you can group the songs any way you like. But hear Stutzmann as well, just as a reminder that there is another way of performing this music.

As usual, Hyperion give very detailed notes, texts with English translations and a fine recording.

Christopher Howell

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