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Pauline VIARDOT (1821-1910)
Twelve Chopin Mazurkas* [40.23]
Six mélodies (1887): Madrid [3.05]
Canzonetta de concert (1880) [4.10]
Ten mélodies (1850) [31.49]
Marina Comparato (mezzo)
Serena Rubini* (soprano), Elsa Triulzi (piano)
rec. Auditorium Matteo d’Acquasparta, Terni, December 2012
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 94615 [79.38]

This extremely well-filled disc, another in the series of new recordings exploring unfamiliar repertory by Brilliant Classics, deserves a warm welcome, the more especially as the company have provided the full texts of all the songs online. In the past I have had cause to complain about their failure to do this and I am gratified that note that there has been an apparent change of heart in this regard.
 
Having said which, it is perhaps unfortunate that over half of this disc consists of Viardot’s arrangements of music by other composers – not only Chopin, but Haydn in the Canzonetta de concert – especially since we have already had a very good recording of six of the Chopin mazurkas from Urzsula Kryger on Hyperion CDH55270. Viardot achieved fame as a singer — she created the role of Fidès in Meyerbeer’s Le Prophete. She also had a considerable reputation as a composer, writing and publishing eight albums of melodies between the years 1880 and 1904. It would have been nice to have had a representative selection of these. Her compositions attracted the admiration of no less a severe critic than Robert Schumann — although he hated Le Prophète — and her interpretational skills inspired Berlioz, who not only made his arrangement of Gluck’s Orphée for her but also had her in mind for the role of Cassandra in Les Troyens. She also wrote for the stage, and studied piano with none other than Liszt. She was clearly a well-rounded musician, and most certainly no mere amateur.
 
Her studies with Liszt clearly bore fruit in her idiomatic writing for the piano; these are no mere accompaniments. The song Madrid from the 1887 book of songs has a rollicking Spanish style that reminds one of Albéniz, with counterpoints in the piano which ideally complement the vocal line. The Album de chant of 1850, which we are given in its entirety, entirely confirms the favourable impression, with L’absence (dedicated to Meyerbeer) also displaying Spanishry in its accompaniment. En mer was dedicated to Berlioz; it is the longest song in this collection, and shows the clear influence of Les nuits d’été – at this period she made a habit of discussing her compositions with him. She had given the first performance of Berlioz’s La captive in its orchestral version in London in 1848. Again the piano part is much more than a mere accompaniment, with its subtle harmonies and counterpoints; one would like to hear this song with orchestra. Although many of these songs are strophic, Viardot makes a point of differentiating the lyrics from one verse to another, and the contrasts she builds into the music are superbly realised here by Marina Comparato.
 
It has to be said that the addition of lyrics to Chopin’s mazurkas are only intermittently successful – too often the voice sounds uncomfortable negotiating the pianistic lines – but it is of interest to hear the duet versions of Séparation and La beauté, omitted from Kryger’s selection, where the voices of Serena Rubini and Comparato blend ideally. Elsewhere Comparato is rich-toned and warmly passionate — well up to the demands of these songs. Indeed, although Viardot was admired for the characterisation of her interpretations, contemporary critics were less impressed by the quality of her voice in its own right; there need be no such concerns here. The recording too, although it could ideally have done with a little more air around the sound, is perfectly adequate; and the piano, deftly treated by Elisa Triulzi, is well in the picture. This is a most welcome release.
 
Paul Corfield Godfrey