Ange FLÉGIER (1846-1927)
Jared Schwartz (bass)
Mary Dibbern (piano)
Thomas Demer (viola) (Larmes)
rec. St Matthew's Episcopal Cathedral, Dallas, 27-28 April 2016

While two swallows do not a summer make two CDs of French mélodies by bass Jared Schwartz and Mary Dibbern make me suspect a Toccata series. The first CD gave us the bass voice songs of Fauré. Now it's the turn of a composer I had never heard of before this disc turned up. Unsurprisingly these songs are either first recordings or first modern recordings.

Ange Flégier came of non-musical manual labouring stock working in the docks of Marseilles. He entered the city's conservatoire in the 1860s and went up to the Paris Conservatoire after singing for Berlioz. He was a finalist in the Prix de Rome in 1869. His mélodies made headway in the public's affections with Le Cor being his real hit. His opéra-comique Fatima was premiered in his home city where Flégier worked as a music critic. There were other operas too: Grognards et Poilus and Ossian. He had landmark events across France and in 1900 his piano concerto was premiered in Paris. He wrote more than 350 works including 120 mélodies most of which he orchestrated. The Toccata note-writer tells us that his songs were not intended for the intimacy of the drawing-room. Like Duparc and perhaps Chausson, Flégier was more in tune with the grand scena and the flamboyance of expression permitted by a full concert orchestra. He died in 1927 after a terrible tram accident which resulted in the amputation of one of his legs.

Le Cor is Flégier's signature work. It enjoyed widespread popularity in France although neglect was its fate after the 1960s. It is a pensive piece recounting the sad heroics of the Chanson de Roland where Roland joins ill-fated battle with the Saracens in the pass of Roncevaux. The piano line skips and fanfares. The song was much recorded in pre-digital days and when first published raised echoes with the then recent disasters (for France) of the Franco-Prussian war.

La Poésie is a smooth soliloquy with Schwartz, without a tremble, amazingly sustaining some very long breaths. L'Homme et la Mer is in the nature of a contemplation of the sea and mankind. World-weariness and fatality are at work; at least as rendered here. Towards the end there is some gruff defiance too. There are also some beautifully poised pages of piano writing - and playing. La Neige is a long song at 7:21. Here Schwartz's impressively leonine steadiness is in pleasing evidence again. He really does make a noble sound which would go well also in French opera. I am thinking in particular of Massenet's Don Quichotte. In Le Manoir Schwartz sounds like the archetype of the Stanford baritone in Songs of the Sea. It's a stirring song rather than a philosophical essay but in À la dérive Flégier returns to type. It's interesting that the 'type' is rarely lugubrious; serious and sometimes in shade yes, but not gloomy.

Thomas Demer's viola appears only once and alongside the piano in Apaisement. This has the air of music-hall sentimentality. It is paced steadily and with well considered judgement. O Salutaris is a rather glum setting touched with religiosity but it's the shortest song here by a long chalk. Back to the seas for a poem by Paul Verlaine where the observer's essence is represented by a broken-winged seagull. This song starts slowly and picks up speed if not happiness. My Goblet is - surprise, surprise - a drinking song with comic inclinations. It's hardly a Warlockian bacchanale but stands out in this company for its contrasting mood. The consolations of drink are to the fore.

The 18 page illustrated essay on Flégier and his mélodies is more than admirable. The sung texts and translations into English are in place with illustrations. It's in a good readable font: black on white. The essay is by Hervé Oléon and is translated into English by the pianist Mary Dibbern.

Explorers of French mélodies have no choice and will be rewarded by what they hear. Where next for Toccata and this singer?

Rob Barnett
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La Poésie
Au crépuscule
L’Homme et la Mer
La Neige
Le Manoir
À la dérive
Chant d’automne
Les Larmes
O Salutaris
Je ne sais pourquoi
Ma coupe