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L’invitation au voyage–Mélodies from La belle époque
Jules CRESSONNOIS (1823–1883)

L’invitation au voyage (Charles Baudelaire) [3:29]
Léo DELIBES (1836–1891)

Départ (Èmile Augier) [4:23]
Bonjour, Suzon! (Alfred de Musset) [2:59]
Regrets! (Armand Silvestre) [4:58]
Charles LECOCQ (1832–1918)

La cigale et la fourmi (Jean de La Fontaine) [1:45]
La chauve-souris et les deux belettes (Jean de La Fontaine) [3:16]
Émile PESSARD (1843–1917)

Le spectre de la rose (Théophile Gautier) [4:42]
Oh! quand je dors (Victor Hugo) [2:34]
Benjamin GODARD (1849–1895)

Chanson du berger (Jean-Pierre Claris de Florian) [1:56]
Guitare (Victor Hugo) [2:35]
L’invitation au voyage (Charles Baudelaire) [4:13]
Viens! (Victor Hugo) [2:49]
Paul PUGET (1848–1917)

Madrid (Alfred de Musset) [3:27]
Comment, disaient-ils (Victor Hugo) [2:27]
Paul (1852–1933) and Lucien (1860–1909) HILLEMACHER

Soupir (Sully Prudhomme) [3:31]
Si mes vers avaient des ailes (Victor Hugo) [1:34]
L’invitation au voyage (Charles Baudelaire) [1:52]
Ici-bas (Sully Prudhomme) [1:59]
Sérénade (Alfred de Musset) [2:09]
Émile PALADILHE (1844–1926)

Psyché (Pierre Corneille) [2:44]
Les papillons (Théophile Gautier) [2:59]
La chanson des blondes (Jean Aicard) [3:27]
Danse indienne (Jean Lahor) [6:06]
Henri DUPARC (1848–1933)

L’invitation au voyage ((Charles Baudelaire) [4:26]
John Mark Ainsley (tenor), Graham Johnson (piano)
rec. All Saints Church, East Finchley, London, 2-4 August 2004. DDD
HYPERION CDA67523 [78:14]

 

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 disc (review). 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 among them.

Émile Paladilhe 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.

Duparc’s L’invitation 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.

Göran Forsling

 



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