Boieldieu will be, I think, the only name from the above list familiar to most collectors. And when did you last hear a work by Boieldieu? The outside of the CD case promises “a fabulous trip throughout the french [sic] classicism of the early 19th century”, a forewarning of the bumpy translation to be found inside. It really is difficult to understand why one still encounters this problem when it would be solved so easily by commissioning the translation from a native English speaker.
The romance was a musical genre common in France at the turn of the eighteenth century. It was, typically, a strophic song with an instrumental accompaniment, provided here by a harp of the period. The words might deal with any topic, but unhappy love was common, as was valour in battle; of course, the two might be combined. There is almost always a strong narrative element, in which nature might well feature strongly, and whose characters were often drawn from mythical or historical settings. As for the music, the booklet quotes a text by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in which he insists that the melody exist mainly as a vehicle for the words. It can be pretty; indeed, this is an advantage; but it must be simple, unmannered, with little in the way of ornamentation or ostentatious gesture. A reference to the accompaniment makes it clear that this must be subsidiary to both the words and the melody, in no way drawing attention to itself.
From this we can see that anyone purchasing this disc expecting what appears on the cover – French Songs – might well be misled: this is a collection of “romances”, and Rousseau’s description – pretty, simple, naïve – becomes plain immediately and holds good throughout the recital.
The soprano Sylvie Nicephor is also active in musical research, and the documentation of the CD appears under her name. For anyone interested in this repertoire, or perhaps in French music of the period, the disc is a very useful tool. But it is not all plain sailing. Sylvie Nicephor has a clear, clean soprano voice, but, on this showing at least, it’s a voice without much character of its own and rather short on variety of colour. That is in part a reflection of the repertoire, but given that there is a certain sameness about these songs, a bit more interpretation, for a modern audience, would have been a good idea. Tuning is not infallible, individual notes sometimes lacking the care necessary to make a whole phrase convincing. The opening of the second song by Gail is a good example of this, as is the opening of the following song by Lambert. And there are one or two points where the vocal technique is simply not up to the job, near the beginning of Plainte à Hortence, for example. Etsuko Shoji plays her Erard harp perfectly well, but she has no opportunity to shine in this repertoire. The recording is fine.
As for the music itself, the description above does the job very well. A few clashing semitones evoke Werther’s sad fate in the first of Jadin’s songs, but otherwise there is little to challenge the ear. His second song, Chanson, has a pretty tune that sticks in the mind, but demanding it is not, except technically for the singer. Quinze ans, Myrra by Boildieu is also attractively melodious, but with five verses it rather outstays its welcome. Bolleros, by Sophie Gal, is a rare example, in this collection at least, of a song in the minor key.
The singer’s insert notes are interesting and informative, but the English translation is poor, sometimes to the point of obscuring the meaning. All sung texts are given, but in French only, a major disadvantage in some quarters.