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Anyone who appreciates the artistry of the Greek mezzo-soprano Irma Kolassi, as I do, will welcome this 4 CD collection of her Decca legacy with open arms. I’ve long been an ardent fan, and have collected her recordings over the years. They haven’t been all that readily available, apart from a CD of Mélodies Françaises, which Testament issued in 2003 (SBT 1291). French repertoire also features on a release of studio and radio recordings on the INA, mémoire vive label (247202) and on an exceptionally fascinating 2 CD set from LYS (149-150), alas no longer available, but if you stumble on a copy snap it up as there’s some very fine Duparc and Leguerney, not included in her Decca discography. Then in 2007, the Hamburger Archiv für Gesangskunst brought out 5 volumes of the singer’s recordings, incorporating those by Decca plus some other items sourced from elsewhere.
The singer is not that well known today, so who was Irma Kolassi? She was born in Athens in 1918, and when only a few months old was taken by her parents to live in Paris. French became her first language and, on returning to Greece aged eight, she was educated at a French school. Her musical talents surfaced early and she went to study piano at the Athens Conservatory, achieving a high level of technical proficiency. She took first prize aged fourteen, and completed her diploma two years later, playing Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit. It was around this time that her vocal gifts were discovered, when she was acting accompanist of Maggie Karadja's singing class. Karadja gave her some lessons and she bagged another first prize. Vocal studies continued at the Accademia Santa Cecilia in Rome and, yes, another first prize. When war broke out she returned to Athens, but she soon became disillusioned with opera, so turned to teaching. She tutored Maria Callas in the role of Leonora in Beethoven's Fidelio. It was after the war that her performing career really took off, and she soon discovered that French song was her forte, and an art form she excelled in. It was in this repertoire that she gained fame. She forged a distinguished career, both in the concert hall and as a recording artist. In the late 1960s she retired and devoted her energies to teaching at the Schola Cantorum in Paris and the Conservatoire de Troyes. She died in Paris in March 2012, aged ninety-three.
My initial acquaintance with the singer came via an LP, devoted to her in Decca’s Grandi Voci series, featuring music by Debussy, Ravel and Chausson. It was Chausson’s Poème de l’amour et de la mer that immediately won me over, and thankfully it’s included here. Kolassi’s plangent, melancholic tone is ideally suited to the sombre mood of Maurice Bouchor’s verses. Chausson’s score is emotionally charged and lushly romantic and this performance unleashes its unrestrained ecstasy. Froment is inspirational, coaxing Wagnerian opulence and impressionistic hues from the orchestra. Although in mono, it’s one of the finest versions of this piece I’ve ever heard. It already had a couple of outings on CD. We also hear Kolassi in a rare foray into opera with Werther! Werther … qui m’aurait dit la place by Massenet and ‘D’amour l’ardente flamme’ from Berlioz’s metaphysical drama La Damnation de Faust. Both are beautifully sung with deep passion and feeling. I see that Eloquence have just released a single CD of arias and duets the singer made of these two works and Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette with the tenor Raoul Jobin, so the two excerpts provide a welcome taster.
There are two collections of Arie Antiche, each containing eight songs, recorded in 1953 with André Collard and in 1955 with Jacqueline Bonneau. Their value lies in that these are the only examples of the singer in Italian song repertoire. Five of the songs are duplicated and are more or less identical interpretatively. The later set is slightly better recorded, with warmer sound and more bloom. Kolassi's exquisite phrasing, effortless control, subtlety and smoothness are compelling. Cesti's Intorno all'idol mio is fervently sung, with ornamentation stylish and refined, and Paisello's I zingari in fiera has a seductive charm. Caccini's Amarilli, mia bella is ardently etched.
Similarly, Ravel’s Cinq Mélodies populaires grecques is represented twice: in 1952 (Jacqueline Bonneau) and 1955 (André Collard). In the latter there’s a better balance struck between singer and pianist. In the earlier version the singer seems too forwardly projected. Kolassi has an instinctive affinity for this repertoire, and her diction and flexibility is faultless. Geoffrey Gilbert (flute) and William Pleeth (cello) offer assured support in the composer’s Chansons Madécasses.
Another highlight is the substantial song cycle La Chanson d’Eve by Fauré. The ten songs, settings of mystical poems by the Belgian Symbolist poet Charles van Lerberghe, were composed between 1907 and 1910, and inspired the composer to great heights, incorporating some daring harmonic sequences. Kolassi is perfectly attuned to this music, and, as French was her first language, this is a positive asset. She traverses the ebb and flow of the opening Paradis with superb control, capturing the awakening of Eve. Roses ardentes is delicately portrayed, and in Veilles-tu, ma senteur de soleil? she negotiates the tricky rhythmic lines with consummate artistry. The concluding song, O mort, poussière d’étoiles is reverential and solemnly declaimed. André Collard is a sensitive collaborator. He also accompanies her in an alternative version of the cycle made for French radio six years later in 1959, and found on the INA disc mentioned above. To be quite honest, there’s not much difference between the two performances. Maybe the Decca has slightly more bloom to the sound. Equally alluring are the three Debussy selections. I'm particularly drawn to Kolassi's reading of the Trois chansons de Bilitis, with texts taken from the erotic poetry of Pierre Louÿs, and dedicated by the composer to the writer André Gide. She gauges the mood of the three songs to perfection, delivering them with rarefied expressiveness, and achieving a wealth of vocal colour.
Milhaud's Poèmes juifs consists of eight songs to anonymous texts by Jewish writers, discovered by the composer in a magazine. They've not been recorded that often. Chant de nourrice (1) is a lullaby, gently sung. Chant d'amour (6) is melodic and memorable, Chant de forgeron (7) robust, commanding and forcefully projected, and Lamentation (8) is darkly painted. The Greek and Spanish songs on CD 1 overflow with sun-soaked lyricism, proving the singer's instinctive grasp and telling musicianship in lighter fare.
Regrettably, Schubert and Schumann are only represented by three lieder from each. Du bist die Ruh is imbued with exalted lyricism, and the dramatic thrust of Erlkönig certainly packs a punch. Bonneau’s bubbly accompaniment in Schubert’s Der Musensohn is appealing. Schumann’s Widmung is an impassioned account.
The recordings, set down between 1952 and 1956 and all in mono, have been newly remastered and sound vital and fresh. The annotations have been provided by Tully Potter, who is of the opinion that Kolassi’s Decca discography reveals her finest achievements. It’s a pity no texts have been provided. Lovers of vocal artistry and especially French art song will find much to savour in this compelling release. Stephen Greenbank Complete contents:
2 Spanish Folk Songs (Arr. Koeckert) [6:52] Joaquín NIN (1879-1949) 8 Cantos Populares Españoles [14:05]
8 Greek Folk Songs [21:02]
André Collard (piano) Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Cinq Mélodies Populaires Grecques (rec. 1952) [8:15] Louis AUBERT (1877-1968) Six Poèmes Arabe (Excerpts) [6:51]
Jacqueline Bonneau (piano) Darius MILHAUD (1892-1974) Poèmes Juifs [20:40]
André Collard (piano)
Arie Antiche (1953 Recording)
Vezzosette e care pupilette (Falconieri) [2.18]
Ah, mio cor (Händel) [3.31]
Chi, vuol la zigarella (Paisiello) [2.03]
Amarilli, mia bella (Caccini) [3.27]
Se florindo e fedele (A. Scarlatti) [2.27]
Lasciatemi morire (Monteverdi) [2.03]
Intorno all'idol mio (Cesti) [3.55]
Gia il sole dal gange (A. Scarlatti) [1.58] Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924) La Chanson d’Eve, Op. 95 [25:50]
André Collard (piano)
3 Mélodies [7:20] Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856) 3 Lieder [6:30] Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
3 Lieder [10:39]
Jacqueline Bonneau (piano)
Arie Antiche (1955 Recording)
Toglietimi la vita ancor (A. Scarlatti) [2.05]
Vezzosette e care pupilette (Falconieri) [2.24]
Se florindo e fedele (A. Scarlatti) [2.32]
Stizzoso, mio stizzoso (Pergolesi) [3.50]
Se tu m'ami, se sospiri (Parisotti) [3:01]
Ah, mio cor (Händel) [4:03]
Chi, vuol la zigarella (Paisiello) [2.09]
Amarilli, mia bella (Caccini) [3.48]
Jacqueline Bonneau (piano) Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918) Le Promenoir Des Deux Amants [6:18]
Fêtes Galantes I (Excerpts) [4:42]
Trois Chansons De Bilitis [9:06]
Two Greek Folk Songs [5:35] Maurice RAVEL Cinq Mélodies Populaires Grecques (1955 Recording) [7:47]
André Collard (piano)
Chansons Madécasses [13:18]
André Collard (piano)
Geoffrey Gilbert (flute)
William Pleeth (cello)
CD 4[44:00] Ernest CHAUSSON (1855-1899) Poème de l’amour et de la mer [28:15]
London Philharmonic Orchetra/Louis de Froment Jules MASSENET (1842-1912) Werther! Werther … qui m’aurait dit la place (Werther) [7:47] Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869) ‘D’amour l’ardente flamme’ (La Damnation de Faust) Op. 24[7:40]
London Symphony Orchestra/Anatole Fistoulari