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Ernest CHAUSSON (1855-1899) Poème de l’amour et de la mer, Op. 19 (1882) [25’26"]
Paul DUKAS (1865-1935) La péri (poème pour orchestra) (1912) [19’09"]
Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869) Les nuits d’été, Op. 7 (1834) [28’35"]
Elsa Maurus (mezzo-soprano)
Orchestre National de Lille-Région Nord/Pas de Calais/Jean-Claude Casadesus
Rec. Auditorium du Nouveau Siècle, Lille, France, 26-28 February 2003 DDD
NAXOS 8.557274 [73’21"]

Naxos has assembled here a varied and enjoyable programme of French music. The centre of attention is the mezzo-soprano, Elsa Maurus, a singer who was new to me. I believe she is French, though this is not clear from the booklet notes. She has a very rich voice and employs quite a bit of vibrato, though not excessively.

In Chausson’s Poème the sumptuous vocal lines of the first part, ‘La fleur des eaux’, suit her well. She sings the piece with warmth and passion, clearly identifying strongly with both the music and also with the imagery of the text. I’m bound to say, however, that by the side of Dame Janet Baker (for EMI, with André Previn and the LSO) she seems just a trifle one dimensional. Baker, great artist that she is, is no less ardent and I find her even more involving. Again, at the start of the second poem, ‘La mort de l’amour,’ there’s more spring and gaiety in Baker’s singing and Previn too contributes a touch that is just a bit lighter than that of Jean-Claude Casadesus. However, later the mood darkens and while Baker remains outstandingly eloquent, Maurus comes into her own, especially in the stanza that begins ‘Comme des fronts de morts nos fronts avaient pâli’ (‘Like the brows of the dead our brows were pale’) She does this dark, haunting stanza very well indeed (track 3, 5’30" – 7’01"). Indeed from here to the end of the work the sadness and regret in the words is very well conveyed. In this passage, as throughout the work, Casadesus and his orchestra support her splendidly.

I must, however, give Naxos a very large black mark for allowing a mere three seconds to elapse after the subdued ending of the Chausson before Dukas’s brass fanfare begins, shattering the atmosphere. (If I’d been planning the disc then for this very reason I’d have started with the Berlioz and ended with the Chausson.)

In Les nuits d’été Maurus faces formidable competition, not least from Dame Janet (again) and from Régine Crespin (with Ansermet on Decca.) In the opening ‘Villanelle’ I find that Baker is more satisfying than this newcomer. Baker’s conductor, Sir John Barbirolli, sets a tempo that is just a fraction perkier and Baker herself injects more life and lift into the rhythms. Well though Maurus sings, for me she narrowly misses the note of optimism and joy that underpins the song. In the second song, the wondrous ‘Le spectre de la rose’ Casadesus adopts a nicely flowing tempo, pretty identical to Ansermet’s and appreciably faster than Barbirolli’s. I like the pacing. Again Maurus sings well, even if she can’t quite match the individuality or range of colour that either Baker or Crespin (or Susan Graham for that matter) command.

Maurus sings the fourth and fifth songs, ‘Absence’ and ‘Au cimetière’, at a lower pitch than Baker or Crespin. (Crespin, incidentally, places ‘Absence’ third in the cycle.) I wish she hadn’t found it necessary to do this in the case of

‘Absence’ for the lower key imparts a darker colour to the song. Arguably that’s not inappropriate but the gently ecstatic longing of the song is better conveyed in the higher key, I feel. It’s a combination of key, vocal technique and insight that makes Baker’s singing of the refrain ‘Reviens, reviens, ma bien aimée!’ so unforgettable ... and Crespin’s rendition even more so. Maurus, for all her merits, can’t match that. On the other hand, the lower key works better for her, I believe, in ‘Au cimetière’, where a darker hue is very apposite. The concluding ‘L’île inconnue’ is the most extrovert song in the cycle and Maurus responds very well, projecting it intensely and passionately.

To complete the programme Naxos offers the short ballet by Dukas. This is sensible programming, not least because it affords a good contrast with the two vocal works. The score was composed in 1911-12 and was originally intended, I think, for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. It’s a fascinating score, which reminds one of Firebird at times in its juxtaposition of voluptuous and (many) delicate passages. Dukas wrote that he wanted the orchestration to sound like "a kind of dazzling, translucent enamel." This implies a need above all for the conductor to clarify the textures and in this Casadesus succeeds admirably. He and his orchestra give a fine and atmospheric account of the colourful work.

This disc has much to commend it. If your priority is Les nuits d’été then I must say in all honesty that, despite the virtues of Elsa Maurus’s performance, there are better versions on the market and not necessarily at full price. That said, the programme as a whole is attractive and well done and is presented in good sound. The disc will give much pleasure and represents excellent value. As usual, Naxos don’t stint on the documentation. There is a very useful note in English, French and German by Keith Anderson and the full French texts and an English translation are also provided.

John Quinn

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