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L’Heure Exquise - A French Songbook
Alice Coote (mezzo)
Graham Johnson (piano)
rec. 2012, All Saint’s Church, Finchley, London
French texts and English translations included
Full track listing at the end of this review
HYPERION CDA67962 [74:32]

Alice Coote here offers an enticing recital of French mélodies. The chosen pieces concern various aspects of love and celebrate it in a fascinating variety of musical styles.

For my taste the programme gets off to a less-than-successful start. Poulenc’s evocative Les chemins de l’amour is a quintessential Parisian waltz-song and a certain je ne sais quoi is appropriate in a singer. However, I feel that Alice Coote goes too far, overdoing in particular the swooning portamento, and risking caricature. I dug out Hyperion’s complete Poulenc songs – curated by Graham Johnson (review). There the singer is the soprano Sarah Fox. Her delivery is straighter in style and unexaggerated but she’s still affecting – and much more to my taste.

Happily, after what to me is something of a false start – others may hear it differently – matters improve significantly. Miss Coote engages my sympathies much more readily in Hahn’s gentle, touching L’heure exquise. Her way with the song is expressive, as is Graham Johnson’s treatment of the piano part. Indeed all the Hahn songs in this recital fare well: the sensed of rapture in Les étoiles builds up marvellously, for instance.

There’s a charming lilt to the performances of Gounod’s Sérénade. I enjoyed Alice Coote’s account of the song but I do wonder if a lighter vocal timbre is better suited to this piece. Chabrier’s Toutes les fleurs is fulsome; Coote and Johnson are right to give it an effusive performance. The yearning nostalgia of Chausson’s Le temps des lilas comes across very well and in Fleur jetée Johnson evokes the gusts of winds expertly, setting the foundations for a turbulent, passionate performance.

Despite Johnson’s exquisite touch I do miss the subtle colours of Berlioz’s orchestration in Le spectre de la rose. That said, Miss Coote employs ample variety of vocal colour in a very expressive rendition. The lush romanticism of Bachelet’s Chère nuit is well served by these artists in a performance that’s full of intensity.

Satie’s Je te veux is a very sophisticated example of the cabaret genre. It’s delectable here and I’m particularly pleased that the exaggeration I detected in Les chemins de l’amour is not replicated. In complete contrast Koechlin’s Novembre is a very deep song. Johnson is particularly successful here at evoking the winter brouillard.

We began with Poulenc and it is he who has the last word. What Susan Youens terms in her splendid notes the “giddy whirl” of Voyage à Paris is poles apart from the Koechlin that precedes it. In fact I’m almost inclined to wonder if the shift of mood isn’t just a bit too jarring on CD; in recital, with a suitable pause between the two pieces, it would probably not be so sharp a contrast. The three remaining songs are all in slow tempo. Hôtel is suitably languorous and La Grenouillère is affectingly performed. Last comes the elegiac Voyage. Apollinaire’s words are elusive but Poulenc’s gentle setting is gorgeous. It’s beautifully done here and Johnson rounds off the whole programme with the subtle mysterious postlude to the song.

I enjoyed this recital very much indeed. The music has been chosen with discernment and the performances by both singer and pianist afford great pleasure. The artists are well recorded and the balance between them has been well judged by the engineers. As I indicated earlier, the documentation is first class.

Alice Coote performed this programme at London’s Wigmore Hall in April 2015, this time with Julius Drake at the piano. That recital was reviewed by Robert Beattie for MusicWeb International Seen and Heard. He enjoyed the live performances as much as I liked the CD.

John Quinn

Track-listing

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

 

 




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