This invitation is
to a journey through – mainly – unknown
corners of the French landscape of song
during La belle époque.
Once again this disc shows Graham Johnson’s
mastery in programme building and his
indefatigable appetite for hidden gems.
A look through the list of songs in
the heading reveals many well known
poems from well known poets, some of
them also well known in song settings.
These are however settings by other
composers, most of them little known,
if known at all. Insofar as they are
known their reputations rest in other
fields than song. Leo Delibes, probably
the only one generally known by a wider
audience today, has survived as the
creator of a couple of ballets and the
opera Lakmé. Charles Lecocq
was during his lifetime enormously popular
for his operettas, challenging even
Offenbach. The last name on the list,
Henri Duparc, is also the important
song composer, with an oeuvre of only
seventeen songs generally regarded as
the crowning glory of French 19th
century mélodies. His
song lends its name to the whole programme
and that famous Baudelaire poem is also
the main thread, appearing in no less
than four different settings.
And very different
they are: the beautiful waltz with a
contrasting 4/4 section by Jules Cressonnois
that opens the recital is a true charmer
with a melody that sticks. It is sung
with exquisite shading by John Mark
Ainsley who throughout the long programme
shows keen musicianship and good taste.
He characterises beautifully and naturally
but never to such extent that he disrupts
the flow of the music. He keeps within
the natural dynamic limits of his voice,
preferring the subtle use of his lovely
half voice to a harsh forte. Add to
this his perfectly idiomatic French
which makes the disc one of the finest
examples of Gallic song performance.
Graham Johnson is as always the perfect,
sensitive accompanist and as usual he
contributes one of his entertainingly
written and well researched essays.
Naturally the booklet also contains
all the song texts.
But, someone may object,
a recital of unknown songs by unknown
or second-rate composers, can that really
be an uplifting affair? Indeed it can!
Graham Johnson has not dug out rarities
at random. He has judiciously assembled
a sequence built on contrasts. The songs
cover a wide area of emotions, from
sentimental or sad to dramatic and humorous.
Apart from Duparc’s masterpiece there
may not be so many songs in the gold-medal
class but all of them are little gems
in a more modest sense. As so often,
the total outcome is more than the sum
of the individual parts. Individually
there is also so much to admire. Lecocq’s
two settings of La Fontaine, for instance,
are lively and humoristic with an expressive
piano part. John Mark Ainsley characterises
well and there is more than a hint of
the operetta master.
Leo Delibes is at least
known for one song, Les filles de
Cadiz, a once popular piece for
coloratura sopranos, memorably recorded
by Lily Pons in the 78 era. Victoria
de los Angeles included it in her 1960s
recital "A World of Song".
A new soprano star Ana María
Martínez sings it on her Naxos
Here are three more examples of his
talent as a songwriter. Départ
is a dramatic scene with a piano part
that Schubert could have written, Bonjour,
Suzon! is intimate and Ainsley moulds
the phrases so beautifully with his
most mellifluous half voice, while Regrets!
is suitably melancholy. As a melodist
Delibes is second to none. Émile
Pessard may be forgotten today but in
his day he won the Prix de Rome and
he may be remembered as one of Ravel’s
teachers. His two songs on this disc
are known in settings by Berlioz and
Liszt respectively. While Pessard may
not be in that league his versions have
a distinct flavour and judging from
what I hear on this disc he should be
better known. Le spèctre de
la rose sounds a little like Hahn
while the Hugo setting Oh! quand
je dors has a more Italian flavour.
As Johnson points out, the text talks
about Petrarch and his Laura.
The only surviving
piece by Benjamin Godard is the Berceuse
from Jocelyn, recorded by among
others Beniamino Gigli. His L’invitation
au voyage is beautiful and moving;
Guitare, a Hugo text that has
attracted many composers, has a folksy
character. Paul Puget, a pseudonym for
Paul-Charles-Marie Curet, also won the
Prix de Rome, not always a guarantee
for immortality. Madrid is distinctly
Spanish and should be a wonderful encore
piece, especially if sung with the fervour
that Ainsley demonstrates here.
The two Hillemachers
were brothers. They worked and published
together under the collective name Paul-Lucien.
The Sérénade is
a charming piece and it is interesting
that they also set Soupir, which
Duparc had already made unforgettable.
The poem is by Sully Prudhomme, who
was the first Nobel Prize winner of
literature. Sully’s poems attracted
many composers at the time, Fauré
was quite fashionable at the beginning
of the last century and many of the
great singers of the first gramophone
generation recorded his songs. Psyché
was recorded as late as the 1930s by
Maggie Teyte and this song, as sung
by John Mark Ainsley, is certainly one
of the gems on this disc. In Les
papillons one hears the fluttering
wings of the butterflies and La chanson
des blondes is lively and optimistic
with a boisterous accompaniment.
au voyage rounds off this long and
constantly captivating recital in a
deeply felt reading. There isn’t a dull
moment here. Good songs need not be
masterpieces to be enjoyed, especially
when performed this well.