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, France
English texts and French translations included
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 Five.’
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.

John Quinn
An enterprising collection of settings of Shakespeare, performed extremely well by a French choir.