French Songs
André CAPLET (1878-1925)
Nuit d’Automne [3:49]
“Quand reverrai-je, hélas!...” [1:08]
Le croix Douloureuse [5:00]
Trois Fables de Jean de la Fontaine [11:29]
Arthur HONEGGER (1892-1955)
Six Poèmes de Guillaume Apollinaire [8:51]
Trois Poèmes de Paul Fort [6:19]
Darius MILHAUD (1892-1974)
Les Soirées de Pétrograde [10:22]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Chansons madécasses [13:07]
Simon Wallfisch (baritone); Edward Rushton (piano); Efrain Oscher (flute); Raphael Wallfisch (cello)
rec. Nimbus Records, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, UK, January and April 2015
NIMBUS NI5938 [61:07]

This is an enterprising and well planned disc of some of the more unusual French Mélodies. Songs from the older generation as represented by Caplet and Ravel bookend those of the younger as represented by Honegger and Milhaud.

The disc opens with six songs by André Caplet, who despite being a well respected opera director, he was at Boston Opera from 1910 to 1914, never composed an opera of his own. His mature years were devoted to the composition of songs, choral music and chamber pieces. Perhaps if he had not died so young he might have accomplished some major stage works. He certainly seems to have an affinity for writing for the voice. The first two songs on this disc, Nuit d’Automne and “Quand reverrai-je, hélas!... were composed in the twelve months or so after his return from America. They are both fine examples of French song and were also the only two songs on this disc which were new to me. These are followed by Le croix douloureuse from 1918 which is rightly one of Caplet’s most famous songs. The main emphasis here is on the Trois Fables de Jean de la Fontaine of 1919. These three pieces are a cycle of genuinely humorous songs. The piano writing in this cycle is as important as the vocal line. This has led Guy Sacré, in his notes for the Timpani disc of Caplet songs (1C1058), to write that the “... piano part has a formidable efficacy of a silent film accompaniment, or of those that even today punctuate the events in a cartoon film.” I must admit that whilst Simon Wallfisch gives a good interpretation, in the final of the three Fables, Lionel Peintre’s differentiation between the wolf and the lamb is more vivid.

The second composer to feature on this disc of French songs might seem strange in that Arthur Honegger was Swiss. Yes he was born in Le Havre, but in the Swiss enclave and when he arrived in Paris to study he spoke Zürideutsch and could barely order something to eat in French. However he is forever associated with French music through his involvement with the group known as ‘Les Six’. Here Honegger is represented by two cycles of songs, the Six poèmes d'Apollinaire (1915-17) and the Trois poèmes de Paul Fort (1916), both cycles appearing on the Timpani disc of Honegger’s Mélodies (1C1015). On the Timpani disc they are given to the mezzo Brigitte Balleys to sing, and whilst she sings them with distinction, they also suit Wallfisch’s baritone really well. Harry Halbreich, in his excellent book on Honegger (review ~ review) describes the Apollinaire songs as “a veritable masterpiece” (p.286), whilst he sees the Paul Fort songs as examples of Honegger’s “much simpler, more straightforward music”. These are not the easiest of songs to come to terms with, but with the Apollinaire set come some of the greatest musical rewards.

Darius Milhaud was something of a maverick when it came to song settings. He even set a seed catalogue and a catalogue of agricultural machinery. However, his songs from the turn of the late 1910s and early 1920s were influenced by the aesthetic of those by his new ‘Les Six’ colleagues. The cycle Les soirées de Pétrograde (1919) comprises a series of twelve miniature picture postcard poems by René Chalupt. These depict life in Russia both in pre-revolutionary St. Petersburg and post-revolutionary Petrograd. Wallfisch sings these well, although listening to Jean-François Gardeil on Maguelone (MAG 111.116) makes you appreciate the French, almost nasal, baritone.

The most well known songs here are the three that make up Ravel’s Chansons madécasses (1925-26) with their additional accompaniment of cello and flute. Here Simon Wallfisch gives his strongest interpretation, one which stands up well to Didier Henry on Maguelone (MAG 111.102). These three songs are described by Graham Johnson in his A French Song Companion (p. 408) as an “unequivocal masterpiece”. They were devised by Ravel as a kind of quartet with the voice as the main instrument. This choice of instrumentation was at the request of Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, to whom the songs were dedicated.

The singing of Simon Wallfisch is good throughout. Yes, there are times when I wished for a little less vibrato, but it is not too intrusive. The piano playing of Edward Rushton, especially in the Caplet, when he is called on to be more than a mere accompanist, is excellent. The recorded sound is a little big at times but not too reverberant with the piano and voice being well balanced. The booklet notes by Roger Nichols are informative and add to the enjoyment of the music. Full texts are given. It is a pity however that only a link to ‘many’ of the song translations is given rather than being presented as part oft he disc booklet.

Stuart Sillitoe

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