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Henri DUPARC (1848-1933)
Chanson triste [03:05], L’invitation au voyage [04:32] (rec. 1952)
Ernest CHAUSSON (1855-1899)

Les papillons op.2/3 [01:09], Le temps de lilas [04:14], Le colibri op.2/7 [03:09], Le charme op.2/2 [02:08] (rec. 1954)
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)

Histoires naturelles [15:24] (Rec. 1952), Don Quichotte à Dulcinée* [06:15] (rec. 1950)
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)

La grotte* [02:20], Mandoline* [01:16] (rec. 1950)
Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924)

Spleen op.51/3 [02:45], Green op.58/3 [02:06], C’est l’extase op.58/5 [02:47], Prison op.83/1 [02:17], Mandoline op.58/1 [1:42] (rec.1951), Clair de lune op.46/2 [02:57], Après un rêve op.7/1 [02:39], Au bord de l’eau op.8/1 [02:19], Arpège op.76/2 [02:02], En sourdine op.58/2 [03:17], L’horizon chimérique [07:38] (rec. 1950)
Gérard Souzay (baritone) with Jacqueline Bonneau (piano) except items marked* which are with the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra/Edouard Lindberg [Lindenberg?]
Recorded in the years given above, no other information
CD transfers by Tony Watts
REGIS RRC 1236 [76:15]

The late Gérard Souzay (1918-2004) re-recorded his repertoire in the 1960s and 1970s and resolutely refused permission for Decca to reissue his early discs. No one has been able to understand why. It would be quite impossible, really, to imagine more heavenly beautiful singing of this repertoire, the tone even, golden and natural, ascending for instance to a meltingly lovely head voice at the end of "Clair de Lune". It would be impossible to imagine a more intimate relationship between singer, music and words, as in "Green" (the second of the "Five Verlaine Songs"), where the non-native speaker usually wrestles in vain to fit all those words into the music with a semblance of naturalness. Limited as my own French is, Souzay really seems to be speaking to me here. Nor does he lack power when called for. He is also cunning in his differentiation of the various composers. He opens up vistas of infinite regret in Duparc and Chausson (apart from the feather-light "Les Papillons"), he becomes biting and tangy in Ravel, delicately chaste in early Fauré. And yet when he comes to this composer’s enigmatic final masterpiece, "L’horizon chimérique", of which this was already his second recording, he is surprisingly robust (except, of course, in the sublime "Diane, Selénè"). The aging, deaf composer is made to leave the stage with a bang, not a whimper.

And yet – I say this more as a talking-point than a criticism – later interpreters have found other dimensions in some of these songs. Those interpretations of "Le Temps de lilas" which positively ooze with decadent sensuality, for instance, hardly run against the ethos of either Chausson or his times. It has also been shown that the divergence between Verlaine’s post-coital musings in "C’est l’extase" and the nice afternoon in the country which Fauré apparently depicts need not be as total as it is here. Possibly Souzay himself belonged among these later interpreters, hence his objection to these youthful efforts, but if so I think he was being unduly self-protective and might have left discerning listeners to make up their own minds. At the very least, we have here a perfect example of classic French singing as handed down to him by Pierre Bernac and Claire Croiza.

As I said at the beginning, Souzay refused to allow Decca to reissue these recordings. The original masters obviously remain the property of Decca, but once the recordings were more than fifty years old there was nothing Souzay could do to stop anybody with a decent copy of the LPs from making a CD transfer and selling it. A few years ago Testament issued five highly-praised CDs which covered virtually the whole of Souzay’s work for Decca. There is, for that matter, nothing that Souzay or his heirs can do to stop anybody who has a well-worn, scratched copy of the LPs from bunging them on the turntable and into the computer and pocketing an easy buck. I fear that the present selection of as much of Souzay’s French repertoire as will go onto one CD is not much better than that. The songs with piano are reasonable. Surface hiss is high and there is the odd scratch ("Clair de lune" must have been somebody’s favourite) but if filtering it out meant removing the bloom on the voice, then better so. There is also a degree of rattling distortion in fortes which puts me in mind of an LP being played with a well-worn stylus of inadequately adjusted weight. The trouble is that after repeated playings like this the grooves themselves get damaged and the record will always sound that way, which is what seems to have happened here. I don’t want to suggest it’s really bad, I’ll readily put up with much worse with live, off-the-air stuff, but I don’t believe a Decca studio recording, even of fifty years ago, needed to sound like this. In the case of the orchestral songs, however, the distortion is quite awful. I wondered if my own equipment was cracking up, but it sounds just the same on other players and to my ears it’s groove distortion not microphone distortion. This might just be tolerable for other singers wishing to study the interpretations, but for pleasurable listening it’s useless. Unfortunately I haven’t heard the Testament issues, but an apparently well-researched review of them (not on this site) particularly commends the "Don Quichotte" performance – Souzay made no other recording of the orchestral version – without any warning about the technical quality, a warning which the critic would surely have given if it sounded like this. Conversely, if the records really are intractable, the sort of technical note that Mark Obert-Thorn would certainly have provided for a Naxos issue, frankly describing the problems, would have set our minds at rest.

But I’m afraid the general presentation here is surprisingly slipshod for a company that has given us some valuable issues. Recording information is limited to the year of the recording; if you want to know the opus numbers of the Chausson and the Fauré you’ll have to look them up; we are not told the arranger of the orchestrations of the Debussy songs (not the composer himself); the cover informs us that the disc includes "song settings by Chausson, Fauré, Duparc, Ravel and traditional", which latter seems a funny sort of description of Debussy; for the use of capital letters in the titles Regis have invented an intriguing compromise of their own between French and English rules; the orchestral songs are allegedly conducted by a mysterious Edouard Lindberg. Presumably this was Edouard Lindenberg, a Romanian conductor active in Paris in those years and highly regarded at the time. Testament certainly seem to think it was. The note by James Murray is good, but Regis are warned that a few issues of this kind will undermine collectors’ confidence in their work generally.

Christopher Howell


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