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Ernest CHAUSSON (1855-1899)
Le Chanson perpétuelle, op.37 (1898) [07:41] (1), Pièce pour violoncelle et piano, op.39 (1897) [07:54] (2), Deux mélodies, op.36 (1898) [06:23] (3), Concert pour piano, violon et quatuor à cordes, op.21 (1891) [41:36] (4)
Bernarda Fink (mezzo-soprano) (1, 3), Ensemble Ader: Alice Ader (piano) (1-4), Christophe Poiget, Marie Charvet, Christophe Ladrette (violins) (1, 4 – one of these doesn’t play in 1, but we are not told which), Pascal Robault (viola) (1, 4), Isabelle Veyrier (cello (1, 2, 4)
Recorded at the Conservatoire d’Aulnay-sous-Bois in October 1898
ACCORD 476 742 7 [79:06]
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This disc was originally made in connection with the centenary of Chausson’s death in 1999 and succeeds by variety of programming – vocal items alternating with purely instrumental ones – in overcoming the problem that, while Chausson is undoubtedly an important composer, a little of his fin de siècle hothouse atmosphere can go a long way.

It also overcomes this problem by including two outright masterpieces, the Concert and La Chanson perpétuelle in its pregnantly evocative version with piano and string quartet accompaniment. The Concert is like no other music I know. Though introspective and doom-laden as ever, it also has great power, an instinctive sense of form and extracts sonorities of incredible richness from a mere six players. The Ensemble Ader absolutely have the measure of it. If you have fallen in love with Franck’s Violin Sonata or Piano Quintet, or Fauré’s early chamber works, or Chausson’s own Poème de l’amour et la mer, and are wondering what to hear next, I am sure you will enjoy this.

The Ensemble also distils the haunting, restless atmosphere of La Chanson perpétuelle, abetted by Bernarda Fink’s finely spun line. A quite different sort of performance is heard from Ann Murray, Graham Johnson and the Chilingirian Quartet on the Hyperion two-disc set of Chausson’s complete Mélodies. They avoid too tragic a tone, adopting a gently wafting, ethereal manner, and taking 06:48, almost a minute less than the Ader’s 07:41. These seem genuine alternatives, and are both happy in having the right voice-type for their respective views. Avoid, though, the Jessye Norman version, where pianist Michel Dalberto pitches in at a heavy forte (the marking is piano) and Norman sings (too closely-miked) with billowing operatic address. Magnificent singing as such, it is a prima donna performance and such is not called for here.

The op. 36 Mélodies also offer distinct alternatives to the Hyperion readings. The first, Cantique à l’épouse, is given there to a baritone, and it does indeed seem logical that a "Song to the wife" should be sung by a man though, as so often in Lieder and Mélodies, one will willingly suspend disbelief if the performance is a good one. Chris Pedro Trakas sings in an intimate, floating head voice (until I looked at the booklet credits I actually took him to be a light tenor) against Johnson’s very delicate accompaniment. Alice Ader plays with a deeper tone and Bernarda Fink is more full-voiced. Given the tessitura, a mezzo-soprano would have to sing it this way, so we could get some idea of which approach Chausson might have preferred if we knew what voice-type he had in mind when he wrote it (we do know that the dedicatee of the second song, Jeanne Remacle, gave the first performance of the two together, but Chausson was by then dead). By a slight margin I prefer the Hyperion, which avoids all sense of heaviness, but in the second song, Dans le forêt de charme et de l’enchantement, allotted by Johnson to Ann Murray, the alternatives again seem genuine ones. A timing of 03:31 on Hyperion compared with the present 02:28 is a big difference for so short a piece. Murray and Johnson are very calm indeed while Fink and Ader find a degree of urgency in the music. Chausson’s unhelpful marking is simply Pas vite. Murray and Johnson are certainly "not fast" but Fink and Ader, while faster, could hardly be defined as actually fast. In other words, the composer’s instructions seem to give room for both interpretations and I find it impossible to choose between them.

The Pièce pour violoncello et piano seems not to be one of the composer’s more memorable inspirations, but it may grow on you. In any case, I hope I have indicated that there is more than enough here to make this an important disc for those exploring the riches of French music. Texts of the songs are not supplied and there is a note by Jean Gallois which, though far from the worst of its kind – it contains much genuine information – adopts that slightly high-flown style which sounds reasonable in a Latin language but (as I know all too well from my own experience) is almost impossible to render into convincing English. All the same, I think that the translator John Tyler Tuttle might have shown more stylistic awareness. No laws of syntax are broken in the following sentence: "The première was given by Eugène Ysaÿe, to whom the work is dedicated, under the auspices of the ‘XX’, a courageous association involved in modern art (painting, poetry, music) and founded and directed by Octave Maus (1856-1910), a lawyer mad about music." But, coming at the end of a sentence in a formal literary style, the sudden bathetic introduction of a colloquialism, "mad about music", is inelegant to say the least.

Christopher Howell




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