Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)
Track-list at end of review
Sabine Revault d’Allonnes (soprano)
Samuel Jean (piano)
Matthieu Fontana (cello)
rec. Vincennes Town Hall, 29-31 October 2011
TIMPANI 1C1191 [50.39]
The great French baritone Pierre Bernac wrote in his book The interpretation of French song that “Massenet abandoned himself to his unique gift and fluency which, in his mélodies, led to a sugary sentimentalism. They cannot be recommended.” These words seem to have been sufficient to deter most potential performers. They are quoted in part in the booklet notes for this release, which is frank enough to admit that not all of Massenet’s 250 songs are “of equal worth” - of which composer could that not be said? - but seeks to present a sufficient collection, assembled by the singer here, to prove Bernac’s statement at least only a partial truth.
For many years Massenet was principally remembered for his early operas Manon and Werther. From the 1970s onwards the appearances of complete recordings of later works such as Esclarmonde, Thaïs with the central dramatic scene in the final Act restored (it was cut in the first complete recording made during the 1950s), Thérèse, La Navarraise and Don Quichotte established him as much more than just a composer of sentimental romances. We discovered from encounters with these scores that he wrote highly dramatic verismo as well as operas on the grandest scale. He continued to experiment with new ideas and styles. His posthumous Amadis with its totally orchestral opening Act in the form of a tone poem shows that this expanding creative impulse remained vibrant to the end of his life.
Most of the songs here come from late in Massenet’s career - many indeed from the year of his death - when he was already increasingly experimental, and the song cycle Lyrical expressions is certainly that. He mingles spoken and sung voice in these ten songs, which are in effect highly dramatic little operatic scenas for voice and piano showing the influence of Wolf as well as French models. The delightfully insouciant piano accompaniment to Battlement d’ailes even anticipates Bernac’s beloved Poulenc. La dernière lettre de Werther sets a poem by the historian Roger de Goncaut-Biron. It finds Massenet recalling his own Werther of some twenty years earlier - a performance of which had actually inspired the poem - with a wistfulness which rivals passages in Ravel’s Shéhérazade. This cycle was composed for the contralto Lucy Arbell, for whom Massenet had already created the title roles in his operas Thérèse, Cléopatre and Amadis, and whose dramatic talents he admired. They are presumably given here with upward transposition for d’Allonnes, but one can imagine that a lower voice could give them even greater force. Some of the spoken passages are extremely expressionist, almost anticipating the melodramatic experiments of Schoenberg in their use of a French version of Sprechgesang. We are here a very long way indeed from Bernac’s “sugary sentimentalism”.
The three songs with cello and piano accompaniment come from between ten and thirty years earlier, although Le printemps visite la terre already shows signs of Massenet’s expanding dramatic accomplishments. In this song the rather effete cello detracts from rather than enhances the effect, especially since the player sounds somewhat backwardly balanced. Élégie is probably Massenet’s best-known song, although more usually in its version for solo cello than with voice. Here Fontana is more forward in the frame and matches d’Allonnes perfectly in a scale which moves the music firmly out of the realm of the salon and into the concert hall. The setting of Amours bénis is less interesting and the cello, which introduces the main melodic material, cannot entirely escape the salon atmosphere redolent of the Palm Court.
Of the songs with purely piano accompaniment, the late Heure vécu is a delightful trifle; but the contemporary Victor Hugo settings Soleil couchant and La nuit are something much more serious with emphatic piano chordal passages and dramatic declamation. La mort de la cigale with its almost coloratura passages proves something of a strain for d’Allonnes, but she is superb in the Hugo settings and Jean is a superb accompanist.
The song cycle Poème d’octobre which brings this disc to a conclusion is the earliest composition here. Not surprisingly it is much more conventional than the later mélodies, with a style that in places does not advance much beyond Gounod. But what beautiful music is contained within it! And there are occasional passages which remind one of Debussy’s early songs – with which they are more or less contemporary – where Massenet introduces almost parlando passages for the singer. It should be noted that it is only in these songs on this disc that Massenet resorts to the repetition of lines and stanzas; otherwise the music is always a fresh response to new words.
So, is Bernac’s judgement on Massenet’s melodies at all accurate? On the basis of the songs on this disc it must be regarded as totally wide of the mark, although one might be willing to concede that others of the 250 might indeed fit Bernac’s description better. One can only be grateful to these artists for their choice of items which expands our views of Massenet’s still underestimated muse to as yet undreamed-of new horizons. Perhaps Graham Johnson might be persuaded to look further in his comprehensive surveys of French songs to see if there are yet more undiscovered gems? If not, further exploration by these present artists would be more than welcome.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
Expands our views of Massenet’s still underestimated muse to as yet undreamed-of new horizons.
Expressions lyriques (1912) [24.09]
Le printemps visite la terre (1901) [1.34]
On dit! (1901) [2.31]
La lettre (1907) [2.29]
Élégie (1881) [3.00]
Heure vécue (1912) [1.34]
Soleil couchant (1912) [3.22]
La nuit (1912) [3.10]
La mort de la cigale (1911) [2.46]
Amours bénis (1899) [3.37]
Poème d’octobre (1877) [11.25]