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Paradis sur Terre – A French Songbook
André CAPLET (1878-1925)
Les Prières [8:30]
Lili BOULANGER (1893-1918)
Clairières dans le ciel [34:14]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Trois Mélodies de Verlaine [7:11]
Cécile CHAMINADE (1857-1944)
Mélodies [14:47]
Ronde d'Amour [1:58]
Mignonne [2:39]
Villanelle [2:16]
Mots d'amour [2:08]
Si j'étais jardinier [2:10]
L'Eté [3:34]
Nicky Spence (tenor)
Malcolm Martineau (piano)
Recorded in Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, 13-15 August 2015
CHANDOS CHAN10893 [64:44]

This is an interesting and appealing collection of French chansons, containing a mix of composers, three of them rather little-known, and two of them women. I wasn’t sure Nicky Spence would have what it takes to really enter into the knowing, rarefied world of French song, but he surprised me pleasantly, and I enjoyed this collection very much.

The choice of repertoire is definitely informed and intelligent. There's something peculiarly French about the kind of religiosity that opens the disc. Caplet’s Prayers set typically familiar words, but the pellucid accompaniment and burnished tenor sound lift them into a realm of sensuality that you wouldn't find in any other religious music of the early 20th century; it’s certainly nothing like contemporaneous Italian, German or British religious music. It’s a daring choice with which to begin the disc, and it shows off both artists very well indeed. Martineau’s wilting accompaniment takes centre stage right at the start, with the delicate, melting clusters of notes that open the Lord’s Prayer and which cast a pall of mysticism over the whole thing. Spence, too, illustrates how much he has matured into an artist of real stature, and he isn’t afraid to use the full range of his tenor to exciting effect, beginning the recital right at the bottom for the Lord’s Prayer, but climaxing thrillingly at the vision of the life eternal that ends the Apostles’ Creed.

Boulanger’s settings of Francis Jammes’ Clearings in the Sky, like Caplet’s prayers, have sensual piano lines that risk overshadowing the singer. Martineau and Spence (and the Chandos engineers) manage to avoid that danger, and they revel in the world of oblique Mallarmé-like symbolism that the songs inhabit. There is the urgency of dramatic love in Un poète disait, erotic religiosity (again!) in Au pied de mon lit, bleak existentialism in Si tout ceci, and the blissful torture of unrequited love in Je garde un médaille d’elle. Throughout, it’s impressive how Gallic Spence gets himself to sound
it never occurred to me – musically or linguistically – that this was a British singer in foreign territory, though native Francophones may disagree. He still sounds young, so you can’t fool yourself into thinking this is someone who has known these songs all his life, but he nevertheless brings a remarkable maturity of approach to them. He sounds world-wearily wise in Nous nous aimerons tout, he bristles with romantic longing in Les lilas qui avaient fleuri, and leads us through the long journey of Demain fera un an with a storyteller’s skill. Martineau, too, revels in the textures, such as the quirky suspensions that end Les lilas qui avaient fleuri, the sensual ambling of Par ce qui j’ai souffert or the dazzlingly florid piano line of Deux ancolies.

Debussy’s Verlaine settings, the most famous item on the disc, come off every bit as well. There is ecstatic expansiveness in La mer est plus belle, exploratory inwardness in Le son d’un cor, and pantheistic joy in L’echelonnement des haies. Cécile Chaminade’s songs are delightful, and refreshingly straightforward in comparison to the heady delights on offer elsewhere on the disc. Ronde d’amour is open-hearted and uncomplicated; Mignonne is a tender Ronsardian lyric, and the Villanelle is a song to the countryside that is about as far away from Verlaine’s thematically similar L’echelonnement as you can imagine in its straightforward enjoyment of nature and simple pleasures. Spence sings Si j’etais jardinier with self-evident delight, and L’Été makes for a surprisingly upbeat but nonetheless pleasant ending to the disc.

Well worth exploring
just try to look past the unappealing booklet cover photo which looks as though it was taken in Havana!

Simon Thompson



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