The appearance of languorous ecstasy on the very first page
of Debussy’s Ariettes oubliées is only one manifestation
of the peculiar sensibility of French song, so difficult for
non-French singers. Reading Verlaine’s poem one is struck by
how little it actually says. Atmosphere is all, the words chosen
almost as much for their sound as for the meaning they convey.
Debussy was a great admirer of Verlaine, and here, early his
career, he admirably complements the music already present in
the words with music of his own. Not all is misty atmosphere.
In the fourth song, for example, the poet is prompted by the
sight of small children having fun on a fairground ride; the
composer responds with music appropriately rapid and rhythmic.
He does not neglect, however, the melancholy aspect he reads
into the verse. More than anything, though, these songs are
mood paintings, and Debussy was a master of mood.
Call me flippant, but I don’t think life with Olivier Messiaen
could have been a laugh a minute. Poèmes pour Mi was
composed in 1936 for Claire Delbos, whom he had married in 1932.
Performed on this disc in its original form, Messiaen created
a sumptuous orchestral version in 1937. The texts, by the composer
himself, are essentially love songs, but this is Messiaen, so
earthly love is expressed in relation to the divine. Thus the
first song is an expression of gratitude to the Almighty for
having created and given him his beloved. The Almighty also
gave his own life, on the cross, and the end of the song gives
thanks for this too, closing with a long, melismatic Alleluia.
The cycle continues pretty much in this vein. One song seems
to be presenting the couple confronting as one the forces of
evil. In others, the composer offers his wife spiritual advice.
He wouldn’t win many Brownie points these days for the phrase
– in the singer’s own excellent English translation – “The wife
is the extension [‘prolongement’ in French] of the husband.”
The final song leaves earthly love altogether; it is a near-ecstatic
expression of love and joy at the risen Christ. All this is
expressed in Messiaen’s habitual – and instantly recognisable
– musical language. The series of chords at the very opening
could not have been written by any other composer, and the fusion
of highly-charged harmonies, often derived from sources as distant
as Hindu music, with highly irregular metric devices, makes
for music of a ripe, rich sweetness to which many react with
In my case, I greet the purity and uncomplicated sincerity of
Fauré’s Les roses d’Ispahan with a certain relief.
This selection of four songs includes one of the best known,
Après un rêve, as well as Nell, a song I hadn’t
heard for many years, and to which I return with delight. Miss
Phillips sings these songs very well indeed, with careful attention
to the words, as well as a more than creditable stab at the
near-impossible task presented by French sung pronunciation.
Hers is a big voice, however, and though she manages to rein
it in sufficiently for these short gems, I feel she is on surer
vocal ground in the Messiaen. I listened without the score,
but it all sounds as it should, including the highly intricate
rhythms, sometimes in unison with the outstanding pianist, Myra
Huang. The Debussy cycle is intimate music, once again, but
here too Miss Phillips makes a very fine stab at a work which,
for lack of inner drive and contrast, is difficult to put across
convincingly. There are some lovely interpretative touches,
including one on the very first page, where, correctly in my
view, she interprets a short silence in the middle of a phrase
as an expression of breathless excitement. She demonstrates
fine control of line, and tuning is generally excellent, though
one phrase in this first Debussy song might have benefited from
The recording is close and unforgiving, and traces of distortion
on a few high notes were difficult to eradicate, wherever I
tried to listen. The booklet is excellent, with the French texts
and English translations sensibly set side by side and a fine
booklet essay by Malcolm MacDonald.
I adored Poèmes pour Mi when I first heard it in my
twenties, and was looking forward to hearing it again. But I
have become increasingly sceptical, with age, about the music
of Messiaen, and remain so, sadly, despite this very fine performance.
For those more receptive than I, however, it will do very well,
and with some solid, stylish Debussy and Fauré alongside the
disc will bring much pleasure to those wanting this particular