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L’heure Rose - Musique de femmes
see end of review for track listing
Hélène Guilmette (soprano); Martin Dubé (piano)
rec. August 2013, Oscar Peterson Concert Hall, Montreal
ANALEKTA AN29141 [60:38]

Now here’s something; a CD consisting entirely of songs by French female composers, sung by this stunning young Canadian singer. Hélène Guilmette has one of those very high, golden soprano voices that is a great gift of nature; but she uses it with exceptional intelligence and sensitivity. Her diction is also quite outstanding, with the result that someone with a reasonable grasp of French can catch the drift of most of these songs. Which is just as well because, although the booklet contains interesting information about each composer many of them new to me, there are no texts. Those are to be found on the label’s website although even there you unfortunately do not get English translations.

The songs themselves were, in many cases, a revelation. Wally Karveno – now coming up to a hundred years old but still apparently involved in music - has written a passionate waltz of disillusionment, La robe de la lune (The Robe of the Moon), which gets the CD off to a great start. Augusta Holmès was both composer and poet, and the four songs here are all settings of her own texts. She had a great gift for melody, as demonstrated in the lovely L’heure rose (Sunset Hour), with its harmonic shifts reminiscent of Fauré, and gently tinkling accompaniment. She was witty too, as we find in À Trianon, a flirtatious Mozartian minuet.

Pauline Viardot (or Viardot-Garcia being her full name) was a celebrated mezzo-soprano in her day, and these songs are a true gift for any singer. The first of them is a setting, of a Gautier poem familiar from Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été, while the other three are based on poetry by Pushkin and Feth in French translation. Her songs are charmingly direct and straightforward, but none the worse for that. Chant du soir (Evening Song) is a delightful lullaby, and here, as elsewhere, Guilmette produces some breathtakingly lovely soft singing. Somehow, I can’t imagine many of our modern opera stars coming up with numbers of comparable beauty.

After Marguerite Canal’s expansive Les Roses de Saadi we come across two rather more familiar names; firstly there is the gorgeous Je demande à l’oiseau (I ask the bird) by Amy Marcey Cheney Beach* - Amy Beach - the prodigiously talented American, a member of the so-called New England School of composers. This song draws something extra from the singer, it seems to me; an even greater sense of emotional and poetic involvement than we find on the other tracks.

Then inevitably, and quite rightly, two pieces by Cécile Chaminade; of these, perhaps the more striking is Au pays bleu, (In the Blue Land), its touching nostalgia tinged with disillusionment. The piano accompaniments of these songs are superb, and Martin Dubé makes an ideal partner for Guilmette; he is always responsive, alert, but never draws undue attention to himself.

Mel Bonis was a complex character, with a dramatic, even tragic life story. This disconsolate little setting of the famous Ave Maria prayer has a strangely inconclusive ending – expressing religious doubts perhaps? Her full name was Mélanie, but she used the abbreviated version for her published compositions in the hope of concealing that she was a woman.

It would be worth acquiring this CD for one track alone, Jeanne Landry’s tiny Mort quand tu me viendrai prendre (Death when you come to take me). Just 50 seconds long, it is a radiant gem. Then how lovely to find the two Boulanger sisters, Lili and Nadia, represented together. Lili, the younger of the two, had a short life blighted by ill-health. She was magnificently talented, as demonstrated by the very moving Elle est gravement gaie (She is Solemnly Gay). Her older sister, the redoubtable Nadia, devoted much time and effort, over the years of her long life, to ensuring that Lili’s work became more widely known.

The last song on this wonderful disc is Mel Bonis’ Invocation, which contains the words "…… l’heure unique et solennelle, où je vous ai bénis", - ‘the unique and solemn hour when I blessed you’. My feelings exactly.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

Note: The CD liner’s list of tracks has an acute accent on the ‘e’ of ‘Beach; but I have checked and believe that to be incorrect.

Track listing
Wally KARVENO (b.1914)
La robe de la lune [3:03]
Augusta HOLMÈS (1847-1903)
Dans un parc abandonné [1:43]; L’heure rose [4:12]
Pauline VIARDOT (1821-1910)
Lamento – la chanson du pêcheur [3:12]
Fleur desèchée [2:54]
Évocation [2:50]
Chant du soir [1:34]
Hai Luli! [3:19]
Marguerite CANAL (1890-1978)
Les roses de Saadi [1:18]
Amy Marcey Cheney BEACH (1867-1944)
Je demande à l’oiseau [2:11]
Augusta HOLMÈS
À Trianon [3:17]
Soir d’hiver [4:43]
Cécile CHAMINADE (1857-1944)
Au pays bleu [2:29]
L’absente [2:07]
Mel BONIS (1858-1937)
Ave Maria [2:11]
Jeanne LANDRY (1922-2011)
Émergence [2:09]
Mort quand tu me viendras prendre [0:52]
Nadia BOULANGER (1887-1979)
C’était en Juin [2:14]
Lili BOULANGER (1893-1918)
Elle est gravement gaie [2:02]
Viola [2:23]
Sauvez-moi [2:39]
Songe [3:12]
Invocation [2:47]