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Paroles à l'absent
Luce del Canto
Europa Barocca/Simon Pierre-Bestion
rec. April 2014 Boulogne, France
French and Latin texts provided
Full details of performers at end of review

NoMadMusic is a French independent label that has come to my attention in the last few weeks with a fine album of Haydn String Quartets, Op. 50 from the Quatuor Zaïde. Released a few months earlier in 2014 this album Paroles à l'absent (Words to the absent one) is another worthy entry in its catalogue. The title Paroles à l'absent is after a collection of poems by Jean Frederic Aubry that André Caplet set for voice and piano in 1908 none of which are included here.

Described in the notes as “all essentially feminine in character” the collection comprises of fourteen compositions from the pens of four French composers, all former students of the Paris Conservatoire. A mixture of sacred and secular these works were written over a thirty-two year period between 1887 to 1919. Eleven of the works are written for women’s voices performed by Luce del Canto and directed by Simon Pierre-Bestion and the remaining three pieces are for piano solo. The women’s choir is twelve-strong divided into the three traditional voice types: soprano, mezzo-soprano and alto. Europa Barocca play period instruments with the quartet using gut strings and pianist Aya Okuyama at an 1897 Erard fortepiano.

Caplet won the Prix de Rome in 1901 and his friendship with the older Debussy was influential in securing the orchestration of several of the great man’s compositions. Caplet’s main work here is the Messe à trois voix for unaccompanied women’s choir renowned as a difficult work. For some unknown reason the five movements have been separated and spread across the programme, although thankfully the intended order has been kept. Surmounting the multiple challenges Luce del Canto excels, singing with refinement and appropriate reverence. They sport a lovely blended tone.

A former pupil of Massenet and Franck, Ernest Chausson was only forty-four years old when he died in a cycling accident. His death in 1899 came at a time when his music was beginning to gain attention. Of the three Chausson works, I admire the early Chant nuptial primarily for its carefree and uplifting quality. In Chanson perpétuelle the soloist in the soprano part — given in the notes as Anne Perissé, a mezzo-soprano — is in radiant voice.

A student notably under Fauré, Maurice Ravel is regarded as one of the greatest ever French composers. Ravel is represented in this collection by a single piece Trois beaux oiseaux du Paradis a setting of his own text. Originally written for soprano and piano Simon Pierre-Bestion has transcribed the score for soprano and alto solo, women’s choir, string quartet and piano. Mezzo Armelle Marq and alto Anne-Lou Bissières are in splendid and contrasting voice, blending some subtle colorations with the strings and piano.

In 1913 with the cantata Faust et Hélène, Lili Boulanger was the first woman to win the Prix de Rome. She was to die tragically young aged only twenty-four. Boulanger in her short life wrote a number of exquisite compositions that are well worth discovering. Here are her Trois pièces pour piano seul from 1914, short and agreeable works of different moods which are spread throughout the disc. I’m not always the greatest admirer of the sound of a fortepiano nevertheless soloist Aya Okuyama using an Erard plays with real understanding, agreeably illuminating Boulanger’s textures. Pride of place goes to her Pie Jesu a dark and mysterious setting. Assured soprano Marie Picaut is in quite glorious voice providing an account of tenderness and purity remaining completely reverential. In what seems like a labour of love Simon Pierre-Bestion directs his choir and players sensitively, selecting his tempi and dynamics with utmost care. Individual vocal character is a quality that has not been sacrificed in an endeavour to achieve pin-point precision.

This release is predominantly aimed at the French market, however, as there is an article in English it would have made sense to have provided translations to the French and Latin texts in English as well. One or two spelling mistakes in the liner notes such as the year 2104 for 2014 could have been easily avoided. There is a short promotional video on YouTube of clips from the making of this recording in a small church in Boulogne which is not named in the notes. Of my minor grumbles most importantly of all there is over twenty-minutes of space on the CD which could have accommodated several more of these wonderful works adding significantly to the desirability of the release.

This stunning collection is beautifully sung with reverence and integrity and impressively recorded too. Lovers of choral music shouldn’t hesitate as there are some gems to be discovered here.

Michael Cookson

Ernest CHAUSSON (1855-1899)
Chant funèbre, for women’s choir and piano, Op. 28 (1897) [5:54]
André CAPLET (1878-1925)
Kyrie, Messe à trois voix, for women’s choir a cappella (1919) [3:44]
Inscriptions champêtres, for women’s choir a cappella (1914) [8:04]
Lili BOULANGER (1893-1918)
D'un vieux jardin, three pieces for solo piano (1914) [2:45]
Gloria, Messe à trois voix, for women’s choir a cappella (1919) [6:42]
Chanson perpétuelle, for solo soprano, piano and string quartet, Op. 37 (1898) [7:14]
D'un jardin clair, three pieces for solo piano (1914) [2:05]
Sanctus, Messe à trois voix, for women’s choir a cappella (1919) [3:27]
Cortège, three pieces for solo piano (1914) [1:32]
Agnus dei, Messe à trois voix, for women’s choir a cappella (1919) [2:19]
Chant nuptial, for women’s choir and piano, Op. 15 (1887) [4:44]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Trois beaux oiseaux du Paradis (1915) [3:00]
(transcribed by Simon Pierre-Bestion for solo soprano, solo alto, women’s choir, string quartet and piano)
O salutaris, Messe à trois voix, for women’s choir a cappella (1919) [2:43]
Pie Jesu (1918) [4:26]
(transcribed by Simon Pierre-Bestion for solo soprano, women’s choir and piano)

List of performers
Paroles à l'absent - Caplet, Chausson, Ravel et Boulanger
Luce del Canto
Camille Chagnon
Ellen Giacone - soloist Agnus dei
Marie Picaut - soloist Pie Jesu; Inscriptions champêtres
Evelyn Vergera
Alice Kamenezky
Armelle Marq - soloist Trois beaux oiseaux du Paradis
Anne Perissé - Chanson perpétuelle
Marion Thomas - soloist Inscriptions champêtres
Cécile Banquey
Anne-Lou Bissières - soloist Trois beaux oiseaux du Paradis
Mathilde Gatouillat - soloist Inscriptions champêtres
Célia Stroom
Europa Barocca:
Cyrielle Bernhard - violin
Sophie Imamura - violin
Lika Laboum - viola
Gulrim Choi - cello
Aya Okuyama - piano



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