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L’Heure Exquise
Georges ENESCO (1881-1955)

Sept Chansons de Clément Marot op.15 [13:26]
Reynaldo HAHN (1875-1947)

D’une prison [2:26]; L’heure exquise [1:58]; Fêtes galantes [1:43]; Offrande [2:27]; A Chloris [2:48]; Five Little Songs to poems by Robert Louis Stevenson [8:48]; Puisque j’ai mis ma lèvre [4:34]; Trois jours de vendange [3:21]; Quand la nuit n’est pas étoilée [2:55]
Ernest CHAUSSON (1855-1899)

L’albatros [3:23]; Le Chevalier Malheur op.34/2 [3:57]; Apaisement op.13/1 [1:58]; La chanson bien douce op.34/1 [2:47]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)

Fêtes galantes II [8:34]
Marie-Nicole Lemieux (contralto)
Daniel Blumenthal (piano)
Recorded May 2005 in the Studio Tibor Varga, Sion, Switzerland
NAIVE V 5022 [65:05]

The Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux impressed me mightily - and not only me - in the Naïve recording of Vivaldi’s "Orlando Furioso" and now has an exclusive contract with this company. The first fruit of this is this interestingly planned anthology of songs by French or French-based composers who - the booklet notes freely admit - had little in common except that they were working at the same time and often setting the same poets.

From Vivaldi to French mélodie may seem a far cry, but with very few exceptions (Gluck and Berlioz) leading operatic roles for contraltos are to be found only in baroque opera, so they have to be versatile if they want to do both opera and concert work. Lemieux allows her voice to vibrate a little more freely in this repertoire than would be proper in baroque music and altogether sounds so completely at home in mélodie that you would never imagine she could do Vivaldi as well. That’s what I call musicianship.

She has a fairly bright contralto; compared with Nathalie Stutzmann’s deep sonority she is less obviously not a mezzo, yet in the melancholy outpourings of Chausson she too reveals an impressively rich lower range. Elsewhere she produces a golden stream of sound around her higher Ds and E flats that makes me wonder if she will always remain a contralto or whether she is heading to become a mezzo. She sings "Trois jours de vendange", I note, in the original key of E flat rather than the lower voice version which has been published in D flat, not that the song goes very high anyway. Still, labels matter only relatively; the important thing is that she is very good and that she uses her voice in a way that seems true to itself.

Indeed, I have really very little to add. These are model performances of melodies and the partnership with Blumenthal (a regular one) is excellent. In cases where I had a score to consult I was able to see that every indication was scrupulously followed, but with apparent spontaneity. My only query is that the five songs by Hahn to texts by Robert Louis Stevenson would seem to require a lighter, less sophisticated approach, but perhaps what I really mean is that only a light soprano could suspend our disbelief and convince us that a little child is singing. I must say that Hahn doesn’t show the same exceptional empathy for this poet’s world as Stanford in the two texts – "Windy Nights" and "My Ship and I" – which the two composers both set. The title of the latter, by the way, should be "My Ship and Me". Stanford left it like that; the fact that Hahn felt he had to correct the stupid English poet’s grammar shows what I mean about a lack of empathy. On the whole I find these the least valuable items here and I wish some more Hahn in French had been chosen instead.

You may have noticed that, while I am expressing great admiration for this singer, I am not quite going overboard either. This is because a certain something-or-other which makes a great and thrilling experience, and which I did find in her Vivaldi, seems not to be present. Others may disagree, just as not everybody seems to be as thrilled by Stutzmann’s mélodie singing as I am. In any case, excellence is a rare enough quality in itself and those interested in the programme, or who wish to follow the career of a singer who is likely to be with us for a long while yet, should not hesitate.

Texts and translations are provided and there is an excellent note by Benoît Duteutre. Since I have had harsh things to say about translations recently, let me congratulate Charles Johnston on an English version which I think I wouldn’t have guessed was not an original English text.

Christopher Howell



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