Ernest CHAUSSON (1855-1899)
Poème de l’amour et de la mer Op.19 (1882-1893) [27:05]
String Quartet Op.35 ‘Incomplete’ (1899) [31:16]
Chanson Perpétuelle (1899) [7:18]
Salomé Haller (soprano); Nicolas Kruger (piano); Le Quatuor Manfred (Marie Béreau and Luigi Vecchioni (violins); Emmanuel Haratyk (viola); Christian Wolff (cello))
rec. L’Eglise de Bon Secours, Paris, France, 27-30 October 2009

Ernest Chausson is a composer whose true worth is often overlooked. Even his most famous work - the violin and orchestra Poème - is more likely to turn up on disc rather than in the concert hall. His catalogue is small but every one in it is a gem. To my ear he is the French composer who most successfully reconciles the conflicting influences of Wagner, the academic rigour of the Schola Cantorum and early impressionism. His big and luxuriant opera Le Roi Arthus is a fine example of this finely achieved balance but on a smaller scale the Poème de l’amour et de la mer Op.19 is his most sensuous and skilfully crafted work. Again it is more often heard on disc than the concert hall; over the years it has received recordings from many of the greatest sopranos and mezzo-sopranos. Therein lies one of the little question-marks about the work - the type of voice best suited. Whether to go for the full-blooded drama of a Jessye Norman, or the rich intelligent warmth of a Janet Baker. But curiouser and curiouser; Chausson in his score - as ever I’ve turned to the wonderful IMSLP site for access to scores I do not own hard copies of - marks the solo part for a baritone. This would seem to be logical as the poems by Maurice Bouchor are written from a male standpoint. Yet there seems have only ever been a single recording by a male singer and a tenor at that! This was a recent performance from the Australian tenor Steven Davislim - very well received here just last December. I have heard it and found the orchestra and recording superb and the use of the male voice utterly convincing but for my taste Davislim’s timbre is too unidiomatically not French and his actual pronunciation lacked conviction.
The dreaded ‘USP’ of this performance is that is utilises a new transcription of the work for a chamber ensemble of voice, piano and string quartet. The argument for this is that it neatly makes a companion piece in this format for the stunning Chanson Perpétuelle. Given the sumptuousness of the original there is a secondary argument that it allows for a smaller more lyrical voice in turn revealing more subtleties than the original orchestration always permits. A smaller voice is certainly what soprano Salomé Haller has. One last little textual query here; although a soprano Haller chooses the lower pitches for the songs - as in the printed vocal score - as opposed to the higher pitches in the full score. Given that the difference is only a tone it does not make for a huge audible change. Pianist Nicolas Kruger in the liner-note makes a case for this transcription he and Haller commissioned from Franck Villard in that it expands the repertoire for this under-used combination of voice and instruments. That is certainly true to a degree although British composers seem to have responded to this format more with Vaughan Williams’ On Wenlock Edge being the most famous example. The performance starts well with the virtues of the disc as a whole immediately apparent. The Quatuor Manfred have a clean and lean sound and all the parts are well recorded and balanced in the Parisian Church acoustic. Villard has rightly made a virtue out of the reduced scale so lines and textures are beautifully clear. In turn this does suit and match the light-tones Ms Haller. But, and it really is a big but, this is a piece that takes hedonistic delight in the sensuous richness of the orchestral palette for which it was conceived. The very end of the first song finds the players, for all their undoubted skill, simply under-powered. The passages where the textures are light and thin are ravishing - the opening is an excellent example as is the instrumental Interlude which benefits from the chilly grey tone the players impart. Credit too to the first violin who makes light of some fairly fiendish passage work which ripples beautifully on a flute or harp but is just darn right hard on the violin. Special mention too for the piano playing of Nicolas Kruger which is a perfect blend of subtle touch and sensitive accompanying. In its own right this is an elegant and pleasing performance even though I don’t personally find Ms Haller’s voice as purely beautiful as I would prefer in this work. However, in no way does this supplant the original work so it would be hard if not wrong to direct collectors to this edition before the orchestral version.
Likewise with the coupling of the unfinished String Quartet this would not be a choice above all others. My introduction to this work was on an EMI import coupling this work with Chausson’s other famous chamber work the Concerto for Violin, Piano, and String Quartet played by Augustin Dumay, Jean-Philippe Collard and the Muir Quartet. From memory I think this won awards at the time of its release in the late 1980s. Good though the Quatuor Manfred are here the Muir are better with a richer, more skilfully blended more subtly voiced version. Next to them the Manfred’s - fine players though they are, this is a matter of degree - sound a little wan. Don’t forget this is not wholly ‘authentic’ Chausson either. Still the only famous composer to die as a result of a bicycle accident this work was left incomplete - the 4th movement existing in sketches only. The near-complete three movements were edited and organised for performance by his old friend and colleague Vincent D’Indy. Who, it has to be said, did a very fine job because except for some formal imbalance that the missing finale would have solved, you have little or no sense of where Chausson ends and D’Indy begins. The very opening of the quartet shows the difference in approach between the Muirs and the Manfreds; the Muirs richer, more sensuous, more questing. In contrast the Manfreds - by choice I’m sure - are more questioning, less certain, lighter toned and with fractionally less perfect ensemble too. Perhaps because I ‘learnt’ the work through the former I find myself resistant to the latter. In either case, this is a fine quartet and well worth discovering if it has escaped your attention so far. The version here is a worthy one yet lacking the last ounce of sheer attack.
The Chanson Perpétuelle is a miniature masterpiece and receives the best performance on the disc. Hearing the perfection of the scoring here does underline the fundamental error of the earlier transcription. Chausson scores this work to perfection and it receives a performance of gentle subtlety. Haller sounds much more comfortable here not so obviously fighting the climaxes although her tone still hardens less than agreeably at high climaxes [track 7 6:20]. Again, Kruger’s piano playing is an understated delight and the quartet find just the right lyrical warmth. Even on disc this has hardly received the attention its quality deserves in the main I’m sure to do with the problem of programming it onto a disc of similar works. The logic in the coupling here is that Chausson worked on the Quartet and the Chanson Perpétuelle concurrently. Indeed the song is his last completed work before he died at just 44 years old. It is hard not to wonder what path his music would have taken if he had lived through to the 1920s.
This is a tricky disc to summarise in one pithy sentence: well recorded and produced, well thought out and in the main well performed but ultimately not the disc to buy if your collection has room for only one version of any of the works here presented with the possible exception of the Chanson Perpétuelle.
Nick Barnard 

Well recorded and produced, well thought out and in the main well performed