Quite a few discs with French melodies have come my way during
the last two or three years. Even though, generally speaking,
I find German Lieder more immediate and attractive, French songs
more and more open up and let me into their specific world.
Here we are treated to songs by half a dozen composers, several
of whom one can always expect on a mixed recital like this –
but no Fauré this time. And a couple of them are not particularly
well known for their songs. The singer, Stéphane Degout, was
Schaunard on the DG recording of La bohème under Bertrand
de Billy, which was issued almost three years ago. I found him
very good in a role that isn’t exactly a showstopper but this
is my first encounter with him as a performer of art songs.
Since his acclaimed debut as Papageno in Aix-en-Provence in
1999, he has been in great demand in many opera houses. Some
years ago felt that he wanted to resume his interest in Lieder
and Mélodies that he had cultivated during his studies at the
Conservatoire in Lyon, together with Hélène Lucas. They make
a splendid duo: sensitive and flexible with a good sense for
the fine nuances as well as dramatic involvement.
The opening Debussy songs are splendid examples of the fascinating
correspondence between the vocal line and the piano part. Debussy
is often perfumed but never stale. Le son du cor (tr.
2) is especially well sung, soft and intimate. Duparc very often
gets the best out of singers and here Le Galop is almost
a knock-out: lively, almost wild with a dramatic illustrative
piano part. The other three songs are among his most noblest
and receive readings to match.
Saint-Saëns’s songs are rather infrequently heard but these
two indicate that it would be well worth the effort to search
some others out as well. The second of these Persian songs,
Tournoiement, songe d’opium (Spinning: an opium dream)
is highly individual and the hectic, nervous feeling of eternal
activity is so well depicted in the accompaniment. Chabrier,
best known for his colourful orchestral works, may be a surprise
to many song aficionados with his charmingly melodious L’île
heureuse (The Happy Isle). It radiates happiness in a way
that few art songs do. Chanson pour Jeanne also begins
on a happy note but the mood changes to bitter sorrow, well
illustrated in the accompaniment. The third song¸ Les Cigales,
is memorably sung by Hugues Cuénod on a Nimbus disc that I reviewed
less than a year ago. Degout, though he has more voice, isn’t
quite in that class but it is a winning performance even so
and it confirms that Chabrier’s songs has a freshness that makes
them stand out from his fellow French composers.
Reynaldo Hahn has long been a favourite and these are agreeable
readings of agreeable songs.
The concluding two groups of songs are among the most important
of French songs during the 20th century – though
they are quite different. Ravel chose to set the prose of Jules
Renard, where he aimed at finding the speech rhythms and embedded
the texts in an atmospheric and colourful piano part. Debussy
set Medieval poet François Villon’s juicy ballades and found,
particularly in Ballade des femmes de Paris, a down-to-earth
irony that is liberating. Both groups, or cycles, are performed
with finesse and round off a very appealing recital. Degout
occasionally lacks tonal variety but these are well conceived
and thought-through readings that should attract wide audiences.
The recorded sound is good and there are interesting liner notes
by Rémy Stricker.