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Invitation au Voyage - Mélodies Françaises
Track listing below review
Stéphanie d’Oustrac (mezzo)
Pascal Jourdan (piano)
rec. July 2014, Espace culturel C. J. Bonnet, chapel of Jujurieux, France
French texts, English & German translations included
AMBRONAY AMY042 [70:59]

I’ve not previously heard much of the French mezzo, Stéphanie d’Oustrac. I think that’s probably because a good deal, but by no means all, of her work has been in the field of Baroque opera which isn’t really my métier, though she is part of the cast in Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s memorable DVD of Les Troyens (review). More recently, followers of MusicWeb International may have read Johan van Veen’s complimentary review of her disc of Baroque opera arias. Now for the same label, Ambronay, she has set down something rather different: a programme of French mélodies composed around the turn of the twentieth century.

First impressions of her voice are immediately favourable. Her tone is rich and lustrous – I’m almost tempted to say voluptuous. The lower reaches of her voice are full and round in tone while she also possesses a lovely top register, which is heard to particularly good advantage in several beautifully floated soft notes. Her diction is admirably clear and, in a programme such as this it’s a great pleasure to hear a Francophone singer, not least for the often sensuous elision of words. I was interested to read in the notes that during rehearsal for this disc Mlle. d’Oustrac was advised by Pascal Jourdan, who has worked with her for twenty years now, to ‘give just a bit less’ at times. I’m sure she heeded that advice but even so there is a great deal of generous, involved singing on this disc and that heightens the pleasure of the listener – or of this listener, anyway.

The Duparc group is very successful. In L'invitation au voyage a sense of longing is well conveyed. Stéphanie d’Oustrac’s tone falls most pleasingly on the ear and, without any unnecessary over-emphasis, she puts the words across with fine commitment. The voice is evenly produced and d’Oustrac demonstrates a fine ability to spin a poised vocal line, not least at ‘Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté,/Luxe, calme et volupté.’ (‘There, all is but order and beauty,/ Luxury, calm and pleasure.’) Pascal Jourdan’s pianism is of a very high order.

The other Duparc offerings are equally fine. In the masterly La vie antérieure the sense of line is again very evident and d’Oustrac produces a glorious outpouring of tone at the start of the third stanza, after which the relaxation to the end of the song is expertly controlled.

There follows a group of four songs by Jacques de la Presle. I’m sorry to say that his name and his music were completely unknown to me but a little research has established that he was a winner of the Prix de Rome in 1921, taught harmony at the Paris Conservatoire (1937-1958) and was artistic director of Radio Paris and then French National Radio (1930-43). I believe that he was a cousin of Poulenc and Stéphanie d’Oustrac is his great-niece – and, presumably, a great-niece of Poulenc also. More detailed biographical information about him can be found here. He wrote many songs and I have no idea how representative this small selection is but I enjoyed them very much Odelette is an attractive, flowingly melodious piece, which is very well sung here. Vœu and Dédette are both very short; the first is delicate, the second eager in tone and charming. Best of all, I think, is Nocturne in which the music complements the words very well indeed. It’s a fine, deeply felt song and once again d’Oustrac’s ability to spin a line is a real asset. The inclusion of these four songs is anything but an act of filial piety – if one can use that expression when referring to a great-niece. The songs are well worth hearing and I’d like to hear Mlle. d’Oustrac in some more of them; a recital disc of de la Presle and Poulenc would be an interesting prospect.

We revert to mainstream repertoire with two sets of songs by Debussy. The early Cinq poèmes de Charles Baudelaire are well done. At the start of the first one, ‘Le Balcon’, the singing is impulsive and impassioned, and rightly so. The reflective and then ardently sensual passages that follow are just as convincing. Once more I admired the singer’s deployment of colour, for example the veiled tone at ‘La nuit s’épaississait ainsi q’une cloison’ (‘Night would thicken, like a curtain.’) ‘Le Jet d’eau’ demonstrates an excellent ability to communicate the meaning of a text and there are some delectable top notes to savour. In ‘Recueillement’ d’Oustrac’s poise and control are enviable while the subtle, sensitive piano playing is just as crucial in distilling the atmosphere. The later Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé are equally well done. These are more elusive songs, occasioned in part by the imagery of the poems. I particularly enjoyed the languid rendition of ‘Soupir’.

There’s more unfamiliar fare in the form of three of the thirteen songs that comprise Clairières dans le ciel by the tragically short-lived prodigy, Lili Boulanger. ‘Si tout ceci n'est qu'un pauvre rêve’ is a touching and very beautiful love song, a description that could equally apply to ‘Vous m'avez regardé avec toute votre âme’. Stéphanie d’Oustrac and Pascal Jourdan are highly persuasive advocates for these songs.

Finally, two offerings from La Belle Époque and the composer who, perhaps better than any other, epitomises it: Reynaldo Hahn. The impassioned regret of La Chère Blessure is splendidly voiced here while the celebrated À Chloris is a gorgeous and wonderfully poised envoi at the end of the programme.

This is a wonderful disc. The repertoire has been discerningly selected and it’s been superbly executed. The sound of Stéphanie d’Oustrac’s voice offers sheer unadulterated pleasure while the playing of Pascal Jourdan is sensitive and refined – and also, when required, he matches the passionate delivery of his singer. Furthermore, these two gifted musicians working together in an evidently seamless partnership interpret these songs with great intelligence. They have been recorded very sympathetically and the balance between voice and piano is excellent.

The booklet is not entirely error-free, I’m afraid. The second and third Duparc songs are listed, and the texts printed, in the wrong order – the order in which they are sung is as shown in the track-listing of this review. The composition date of Boulanger’s Clairières dans le ciel is given as 1906; various sources on the internet give a range of dates between 1913 and 1916. I’m afraid that the booklet note by Cesare Liverani is not easy to follow, something for which the translator can’t be blamed. Liverani’s essay is far from ideally helpful to the general reader and more comment about the less familiar songs and their composers would have been beneficial. On the other hand the booklet is beautifully produced and, praise be, the texts and translations are supplied in a typeface which is easily read.

This recital gave me a great deal of pleasure. Encore, s’il vous plait.

John Quinn

Track listing

Henri DUPARC (1848-1933)
L'invitation au voyage (1884)
Chanson triste (1868)
Soupir (ca 1869)
La vie antérieure (1884)
Jacques de la PRESLE (1888-1969)
Odelette (1913)
Vœu (1912)
Dédette (1913)
Nocturne (1912)
Claude DEBUSSY (1865-1918)
Cinq poèmes de Charles Baudelaire (1887-1889)
Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé (1913)
Lili BOULANGER (1893-1918)
from Clairières dans le ciel (1916?): No.6 Si tout ceci n'est qu'un pauvre rêve; No..7 Nous nous aimerons tant; No.8 Vous m'avez regardé avec toute votre âme
Reynaldo HAHN (1874-1947)
La Chère Blessure (1900)
À Chloris (1916)