Full fathom five
et autres Shakespeare songs Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Three Shakespeare Songs (1951) [6:20] Patrick BURGAN (b. 1960) When
Forty Winters (1998) [5:42] Frank MARTIN (1890-1974) Cinq
chansons d’Ariel (1950) [10:42] Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS The Willow
Song (1913) [2:05]; Come away, Death (1909) [3:59]; Dirge for Fidele
(1922) [3:32]; It was a lover and his lass (1922) [1:49] Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976) Fancie
(1964/5) [0:59] Michael TIPPETT (1905-1998) Full
fathom five (Five Songs for Ariel, No 2) (1952) [1:48] Gerald FINZI (1901-1956) Come
away, Death (Let us Garlands Bring, Op. 18, No 1) (1939)
[3:38] Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971) Three
Songs from William Shakespeare (1953) [7:12] William MATHIAS (1934-1992) Shakespeare
Songs, Op. 80 (1978) [15:43]
Chœur de Chambre Les Éléments/Joël Suhubiette
Corine Durous (piano)
rec. 27-31 October 2001, La Chapelle des Carmélites de Toulouse,
English texts and French translations included
ÉDITIONS HORTUS 028 [63:32]
I’ve previously come across Joël Suhubiette and his Toulouse-based
chamber choir, Les Éléments in their recordings of music by
Alfred Desenclos (review)
and of the Requiem by Maurice Duruflé (review).
Those recordings featured French music but here they turn their
attention to music from the other side of the English Channel.
This is an enterprising collection of settings of Shakespeare,
mainly by British composers, though a Frenchman, a Swiss and
a Russian also contribute. To be honest, the programme would
be thought ambitious and wide-ranging if the choir involved
were British but for a non-Anglophone ensemble, admittedly one
comprising professional singers, the degree of enterprise is
remarkable – and a cause for some celebration. It must be acknowledged
that one does notice that English is not the singers’ mother
tongue but it seems that they have been nearly as well coached
in the words as in the music itself. I don’t think anyone is
going to be put off by occasional infelicities of pronunciation.
Nor should they be, for there is much good music here and it’s
all performed extremely well. The previous discs, mentioned
above, have involved a slightly larger vocal ensemble than Suhubiette
employs here. This group, I suspect, comprises his elite singers.
There are five singers to each part except in the alto section,
which has four, all female. I would guess, from the clean, fresh
sound that is produced, that the singers are relatively young
– in their twenties or thirties – but they’re obviously an experienced
and proficient team. Blend, tuning, ensemble and rhythmic accuracy
are all very fine, and in addition this challenging and varied
programme reveals the group to be versatile and flexible.
I’m sorry to say that the one piece I didn’t enjoy at all is
the one offering by a French composer. When Forty Winters,
a setting of Sonnet II, by Patrick Burgan, is a piece which
this ensemble premièred in 1999. Its musical language is probably
the most ‘advanced’ of any piece in the recital but I didn’t
find that this made it the most interesting. On the contrary,
it was the one item where I found it hard to follow the words
that were being sung, especially as the textures expanded. I
don’t think that’s the fault of the singers, whose enunciation
of words is fine elsewhere. Rather, I think Burgan has just
tried to be too clever and, on the evidence of this piece at
least, doesn’t understand how to write well and clearly for
the human voice, unlike all the other composers represented
here. When Forty Winters left me cold – no pun intended
– and I doubt I shall want to hear it again.
On the other hand, I shall definitely listen again to the set
of eight Shakespeare Songs by the Welsh composer, William
Mathias. I’ve heard quite a lot of this composer’s vocal music
previously but I’m slightly embarrassed to say that these songs
were new to me. I find them resourceful, enjoyable and rewarding.
Furthermore, Mathias displays the same fine feeling for words
that is evident in the other choral works of his – both large-scale
and for smaller groups – that I’ve heard. Particularly attractive
are the exuberant pieces that open and close the set, the powerful,
dramatic treatment of ‘Dirge’ (‘Fear no more the heat o’ the
sun’) and the mysterious and atmospheric setting of ‘Full Fathom
One of the incidental pleasures of this disc is the chance to
compare and contrast the different treatment of the same text
by more than one composer. Thus, for example, there are no less
than five different settings of ‘Full Fathom Five’ – by Martin,
Mathias, Stravinsky, Tippett and Vaughan Williams – and two
each of ‘Fear no more the heat o’ the sun’ and ‘Come away, Death’.
But many of the texts are only represented by one setting, including
Vaughan Williams’ incomparable response to ‘The cloud-capp’d
towers’. One interesting feature of the booklet, by the way,
is a list of settings of many of the texts in question by composers
other than those performed here.
Vaughan Williams’ wonderful Three Shakespeare Songs are
well done here, though I thought the performance of the first
one, ‘Full Fathom Five’, sounded a bit cautious. Hats off to
Joël Suhubiette also for including four other, less familiar
Shakespeare settings by RVW – another example of the care and
perspicacity with which this programme has been compiled. The
excellent Frank Martin set of songs is also given a good performance,
especially in the penultimate song, ‘You are Three Men’, in
which Ariel’s admonitory words are set to music that requires
a strongly projected performance, which is what Suhubiette and
his singers deliver.
There are a number of opportunities for singers to deliver short
solos during the choral items and all these are well done. In
addition there are a few purely solo items. The three Stravinsky
pieces are for single voice with piano. Alto Els Janssens has
a clear, clean tone and sings the material well; others may
respond more warmly to Stravinsky’s music itself than I did.
We hear another alto, Sabine Garrone in the short Tippett piece.
Best of all – and given the best music - is Didier Chevalier
in Finzi’s fine song ‘Come away, Death’. He’s listed in the
booklet as a bass but he’s clearly a baritone. His voice is
very pleasing and he produces a most attractive, if fairly light
timbre. Even if one is aware that English is not his first language
I enjoyed his performance of the song and he sounds as if he
understands and appreciates Finzi’s style.
I enjoyed this disc and Suhubiette and his choir are to be congratulated
on the enterprise of this programme and the skill with which
they deliver it. I’ve heard several good discs of English choirs
singing French music over the years. It’s nice to see the compliment
returned so successfully.
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