Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Ariettes oubliées (1887, rev. 1903) [16:50]
Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Poèmes pour Mi (1936) [23:50]
Gabriel FAURE (1845-1924)
Les roses d’Ispahan [3:44]; Nell [1:50]; Après un rêve [3:08]; Adieu [2:42]
Susanna Philips (soprano); Myra Huang (piano)
rec. 13-15 January 2010, location not specified
Sung texts and English translations provided
BRIDGE 9356 [54:09]
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 wonder.
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 a retake.
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 programme.
William Hedley
A big voice in French music, successfully managed by this young American soprano.