Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Mélodies persanes [21:27]
Cinq poèmes de Ronsard [15:12]
Vieilles Chansons [6:11]
La Cendre rouge [28:11]
Tassis Christoyannis (baritone)
Jeff Cohen (piano)
Rec Théâtre Saint-Bonnet (Bourges), March 2016
APARTE AP132 [70:59]
There are some real treasures on display here, waiting to be discovered in an underexplored corner of the French song repertoire. Saint-Saëns is much better known as a composer of larger scale works, and it is a total delight listening to how he unfurls his compositional skill on this most intimate of scales. The (very good) booklet essay reveals that his first song was composed at the age of 5 (!) and his last song was written only a few months before his death, so his 150 mélodies sit at the heart of his repertoire and his identity as a composer.
Based on what is on offer here, it is a real shame that they’re not better known in the English-speaking world. The Persian Songs are a very enticing way to open the disc. ‘La brise’ has a very exotic-sounding rhythm to it, and ‘La splendeur vide’ attains depths of great profundity, the long poem summoning wonderful music from the composer. There is an alluring restlessness to both the ‘Lonely Woman’ of the third song and the warrior of the fourth. The graveyard of ‘Au cimitière’ is a beautiful contrast of romantic love amidst reminders of death, and ‘Tournoiement’, as the spinning song of a Whirling Dervish is breathless, almost manic.
The Ronsard settings are more playful and more pictorial. They're mostly parables of love, and it's fascinating seeing what music the images draw from the composer. The hymn to St Blaise, on the other hand, is a beautifully still, devotional pastorale, and shows a completely different side to Saint-Saëns, as do the Songs of Olden Times, which are remarkably simple and refreshing
Saint-Saëns said of La Cendre Rouge that the songs “aren't very melodic,” and they’re certainly more experimental, though every bit as appealing. ‘Prélude’ begins with a spidery, unmelodic piano line which is almost serialist, while ‘Douceur’ has beautiful lilt to it, and the piano daringly fills in the singer’s absence during parts of ‘Silenc’e. The piano evokes tolling bells in ‘Pâques’, with a blissful treatment of the sacred theme, and there is something Debussian in the water imagery of ‘Jour de pluie’. ‘Amoroso’ sounds very experimental in harmony and structure but ‘Mai’ is uncomplicatedly lovely, upbeat and carefree. Similarly, there is simple naïveté to the love song of ‘Petite Main’, while ‘Reviens!’ is a celebration of the power of love to intoxicate and infuriate.
Unfortunately, however, I wasn't keen on the voice. Tassis Christoyannis’ baritone is rather nasal and hollow-sounding, and not particularly alluring. It consistently feels rather surface-focused and superficial, as though playing all of his aces up front and hiding no depths below the surface. He also lacks juice at the top of the register, a consistent problem which is exemplified when he tries too hard to be overtly devotional at the end of the hymn to Saint Blaise. Nor does he sound remotely francophone, his accent sounding a bit like a student in a GCSE aural in places, which hamstrings much of the recital.
Jeff Cohen’s piano is more consistently interesting, and achieves wonderful colour in several of the more pictorial songs. However, he isn’t helped by an unbalanced recording which puts the singer right at the front and rather recesses the piano.
It’s a shame, but this disc has, at least, made me curious to explore more of Saint-Saëns’ song output, and for that I’m grateful. Texts and their English translations are included in the booklet.