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Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924)
Dans un parfum de roses (Amid the scent of roses)
Le Papillon et la fleur; Rêve d'amour; Dans les ruines d'une abbaye; L'aurore; la rançon; Aubade; Ici-bas !; Aurore; Le pays des rêves; Les roses d'Ispahan; Nocturne; La rose; Soir; Le parfum impérissable; Arpège; Mélisande's song; Le plus doux chemin; Vocalise-étude; La chanson d'Ève.
Jennifer Smith (soprano); Geraldine McGreevy (soprano); Felicity Lott (soprano); Jean-Paul Fouchécourt (tenor); Stephen Varcoe (baritone); Graham Johnson (piano)
recorded on various dates in 2002, 2003, 2004 DDD
HYPERION CDA67336 [66:59]

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One of Hyperion's great and lasting achievements will be its pioneering of in-depth series built around specific composers, starting with the groundbreaking complete Schubert songs. This recording is the fourth in the set of songs by Gabriel Fauré, compiled to bring deeper insight into the inner world of Fauré's music.

Fauré's childhood was spent in the fertile walled gardens at Montgauzy, a former convent, from which he could hear music from the nearby chapel. Sights, sounds, scent and colour connected in his memory. Dans les ruines d'une abbaye captures this romantic spirit. It is juvenilia, but Fouchécourt brings verve to its jaunty, playful phrasing. Earlier still is Le papillon et la Fleur. On its autograph score, Camille Saint-Saëns, Fauré's teacher, sketched a flower with tiny arms. If Jennifer Smith's diction is not idiomatic, little is lost because the song isn't much. Fauré's more individual style blossoms with Aubade. An extended vocal melody curls lyrically, contrasting with sparse staccato on the piano part. Jean-Paul Fouchécourt shows why he's regarded as one of the great interpreters of French song today. It may be a simple strophic song, but he breathes life into it by sheer vocal colour. As the dawn breaks, his voice rises, “Voici le frais matin!” (A fresh morning has broken!) which repeats a few bars later, “Entr'ouve ta paupière”. This lovely back and forth between delicacy and warmth gives the song its gentle charm. How beautifully Fouchécourt holds and shapes the words that follow, “Ô vierge!” Then the final high notes of the verse “au doux regard” suddenly leap out from the line. Fouchécourt hits the note with ease, holding it until it fuses seamlessly with Graham Johnson's playing.

Even more illustrative of Fauré's style is the rarely heard Vocalise-étude. Written to test vocal abilities, it also challenges a singer's innate understanding of musical form. Without using words, a singer needs to shape the flow intuitively: there's no help from the minimalist piano. Fortunately, Geraldine McGreevy's musicianship is as well honed as her technique. She may be singing abstractions, but they come across as moving and involving because her phrasing and intonation is so thoughtfully nuanced. That is the difference between mere sound and music. She is superb in Le pays des rêves. Johnson plays the lilting rhythm, like the rocking of a cradle. Deceptively simple, it connects the imagery of dreams, both in sleep and in hope. From this foundation, McGreevy's voice soars. She shapes the long, curving lines with grace, extending notes so that they seem to dissolve into space as amorphous as the text itself. “J'ai taillé dans l'azur les toiles du vaisseau qui nous portera ... .jusqu'au verger d'or des étoiles”, (I have cleaved the blue sky with the sails of the ship that will bear us ... to the golden orchard of the stars). Are we at sea, or in the skies? Is this bliss or is bliss inherently impossible? “La route incertaine” permeates the whole song with intriguing ambiguity.

Perfume is very much a theme in these songs. If McGreevy's voice is floral with fresh notes, then Felicity Lott's must include tones of moss roses, chypre and exotic oriental spices. Orientalism, as Edward Said noted, symbolised for strait-laced 19th century artists, an escape into exciting, hidden mystery. From Baudelaire to Loti, Ravel and Debussy, it allowed the expression of new ideas in the guise of alien culture. Les roses d'Ispahan positively drips with luscious sensuality. In his notes, Johnson compares its “unique undulation” to the gait “of heavily loaded camels swaying across desert sands”.

He plays this vividly, but alas the scent of roses, not camels, is ultimately more attractive. Darker and more equivocal is Le parfum impérissable. Here, perfume falls drop by drop on desert sands. But Fauré stresses “la blessure ouverte”, the open wound of blighted love. Blood, too, falls “goutte à goutte”. Lott's pure, clear voice expresses the rapture of the adoring lover: the piano part expresses grimmer undertones.

This is a well chosen compilation which shines light on Fauré's creative spirit. Johnson, as ever, raises programming choice to the level of high art. It is a unique and special gift, based on vast knowledge and musical intelligence. The performers, too, are well balanced. Stephen Varcoe, for example, brings needed depth to a collection of songs mainly for high voice. Recommended.

Anne Ozorio



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