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L’heure exquise – A French Song Book
Alice Coote (mezzo), Graham Johnson (piano)
rec. All Saints’ Church, East Finchley, London, 18-20 October 2012
Sung texts with English translations enclosed
HYPERION CDA67962 [74:32]

Not so long ago I reviewed a live Winterreise from Wigmore Hall with Alice Coote and Julius Drake – and very positive I was. It was recorded in early 2012, and a little more than half a year later this studio production was set down, now with Graham Johnson at the piano. The programme is indeed an exquisite hour – more than that in fact, almost five quarters of an hour of delicate French songs from the 19th and 20th centuries. It opens and ends with songs by possibly the greatest composer of French melodies during the last century. Les chemins de l’amour, written in 1940 for Yvonne Printemps, is a delicious starter: a lovely melodious languorous waltz. Satie in cabaret mood isn’t far away.

Then follows a string of pearls of exquisite songs, presented in a well-judged order to create unity as well as contrast – not an easy task to fulfil. Picking only the two dozen most popular songs is no guarantee of success, but here they have found suitable examples. They have arranged them in a sequence that lets each stand out as the masterpiece it is without being killed by or killing its neighbours. The two Hahn songs are well matched against Poulenc and then comes Fauré, always sensitive to the poetic qualities of the texts. Charles Gounod is remembered for his operas, of which Faust and, to a lesser degree, Roméo et Juliette have been favourites – and still are. Not every music-lover knows that Gounod also wrote songs: more than one hundred. The Victor Hugo setting Sérénade is possibly his best known. The name Emmanuel Chabrier probably evokes memories of colourful orchestral works like España and Joyeuse marche but he wrote a number of songs, of which two are included here. Both are highly attractive. Ernest Chausson, who died in a bicycle accident not yet 45, left a rather small legacy and today is best known for his Poème for violin and orchestra and his song cycle Poème de l'amour et de la mer. Le temps de lilas (1886) is an atmospheric song, pointing forward to impressionism; Debussy was a great admirer of Chausson.

Berlioz composed his well-known song-cycle originally for voice and piano but later orchestrated it, and that is almost exclusively the only version we hear today. Alice Coote and Graham Johnson show with emphasis that the original also is well worth a listen. Little is heard today of Alfred Bachelet’s music. The sole survivor is the song Chére nuit written in 1897 for Nellie Melba. It is a marvellous song, more operatic showpiece, though, than a true mélodie. Saint-Saëns composed in all genres and with the same ease and tastefulness. Aimons-nous is a beautiful love-song, filled with honest sentiment. Soirée en mer, another Hugo setting, is enchanting; Saint-Saëns at his very best. I mentioned Erik Satie at the beginning of the review. Now, here he is with his best known song, ravishingly sung: Je te veux. Charles Koechlin’s opus list encompasses over two hundred works and among them are several groups of songs. Novembre (from Quatre melodies, Op 22) is fairly early, written around the previous turn of the century. It is a gloomy song, in spite of the text saying: ‘the charming month’, ‘the blessed month’. Four short songs by Poulenc round off this delightful traversal of French song repertoire, the last of them being Voyage, a setting of Apollinaire:

Farewell love cloud that flies and has not shed fertile rain
Take again the journey of Dante
Bird who lets its wings fall everywhere
Where is this train going that dies away in the distance
In the vales and the lonely fresh woods of the
Tender summer so pale?
The gentle night moonlit and full of stars
It is your face that I no longer see
(English version by Winifred Radford)

Wonderful songs, wonderful singing, wonderful piano playing. Excellent recording and a deeply satisfying essay on the songs by Susan Youens. Song discs don’t come much better.

Göran Forsling

Previous review: John Quinn

Track listing
Francis POULENC (1899 – 1963)
1. Les chemins de l’amour (from Léocadia, FP106) [3:48]
Reynaldo HAHN (1874 – 1947]
2. L’heure exquise (from Chansons grises) [2:26]
3. Les étoiles (from Douze Rondels) [2:50]
Gabriel FAURÉ (1845 – 1924)
4. Le secret, Op. 23 No. 3 [2:33]
Charles GOUNOD (1818 – 1893)
5. Sérénade [4:26]
6. Au printemps [1:57]
Emmanuel CHABRIER (1841 – 1894)
7. Toutes les fleurs [4:45]
Ernest CHAUSSON (1855 – 1899)
8. Le temps des lilas [4:11]
Gabriel FAURÉ
9. Fleur jetée Op. 39 No. 2 [1:39]
Hector BERLIOZ (1803 – 1869)
10. Le spectre de la rose (from Les nuits d’été Op. 7) [6:11]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835 – 1921)
11. Aimons-nous [4:11]
12. L’île heureuse [2:50]
Alfred BACHELET (1864 – 1944)
13. Chère nuit [4:56]
14. Soirée en mer [4:34]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862 – 1918)
15. La grotte (from Trois chansons de France, L115) [2:25]
Reynaldo HAHN
16. Fumée (from Les feuilles blessées) [2:41]
Erik SATIE (1866 – 1925)
17. Je te veux [3:54]
Reynaldo HAHN
18. La chère blessure [3:20]
Charles KOECHLIN (1867 – 1950)
19. Novembre (from Quatre mélodies Op. 22) [3:17]
20. Voyage à Paris (from Banalités, FP107) [0:58]
21. Hôtel (from Banalités, FP107) [1:45]
22. La Grenouillère FP96 [1:50]
23. Voyage (from Calligrammes, FP140) [3:01]


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