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Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Mélodies avec orchestre
Yann Beuron (tenor)
Tassis Christoyannis (baritone)
Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana/Markus Poschner
rec. August 2016, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano, Switzerland
French sung texts with English translations
ALPHA CLASSICS 273 [58.05]

In a philosophical mood, Camille Saint-Saëns once stated: “The artist who does not feel completely satisfied by elegant lines, by harmonious colours, and by a beautiful succession of chords does not understand the art of music”. In recent decades, the music of the multi-talented Saint-Saëns has been receiving significant recognition which its innate quality deserves. Nevertheless all too frequently the primary attention has tended to focus on those same few scores that have been recorded numerous times over, notably the “OrganSymphony, Danse Macabre and The Carnival of the Animals. Contained on this Alpha Classics release, the collection of Saint-Saëns’s rarely heard orchestral songs titled Mélodies avec orchestre is a breath of fresh air.

According to the accompanying booklet notes, there are twenty-five Mélodies with orchestra listed in Saint-Saëns’s catalogue. Nineteen of them are recorded here, stated as world première recordings. The sheer quality of the writing shining through like a beacon makes it rather astonishing that these Mélodies have never been committed to disc before.

Saint-Saëns knew that French song was usually encountered in the form of voice and piano. Since opera arias were enduringly popular too, he strove to correct the balance by composing orchestral Mélodies in the “French coloristic style”. A committed admirer of poetry, especially from the pen of Victor Hugo, Saint-Saëns wrote numerous setting of his poems. Included here are Hugo‘s six Mélodies, notably L'Enlèvement, Rêverie and Extase. Also contained here is a dramatic setting of Saint-Saëns’s own text Les cloches de la mer.

Not surprisingly, the soloists selected to share works on this collection, tenor Yann Beuron and baritone Tassis Christoyannis, are vastly experienced in French repertoire. While Christoyannis is not a native French speaker, it does not really present a problem. One immediately feels a strong sense of engagement by these accomplished artists in Saint-Saëns’s art and the chosen texts.

A graduate of the Paris Conservatoire, tenor Yann Beuron is a specialist in French and Mozart repertory. He made his stage debut with Opéra national du Rhin in 1995 in the role of Belmonte (Die Entführung aus dem Serail), and in 1996 had his Paris Opéra debut as Arcas/Mercure (Hippolyte et Aricie). He has appeared on a number of opera recordings and video. There is also recital disc from 2009 of Fauré Mélodies with accompanist Billy Eidi on the Timpani label. Beuron begins the recital programme in heartfelt mood with an especially beautiful setting of Pierre Aguétant’s Angélus, complete with a tolling bell in its attractive orchestration. Conspicuous too for its prominent woodwind accompaniment is the Victor Hugo setting Rêverie. Admirable is Papillons to a Renée de Léché text with its especially colourful scoring. The tenor has the measure of these songs. His attractive voice is notable for its impressive enunciation and rich lower register.

Versatile Greek baritone Tassis Christoyannis studied at Athens Conservatory. He was a member of Greek National Opera in 1995-1999. Since 2000 he has been principal baritone of Deutsche Opera am Rhein. Christoyannis has appeared in operas by as diverse composers as Monteverdi, Gluck, Mozart, Rossini, Donizetti, Verdi, Tchaikovsky and Debussy. A number of those perfroamnces have appeared on video. On the Aparté label, Christoyannis with accompanist Jeff Cohen has released several individual recital discs of Mélodies by French composers Félicien David, Lalo, Goddard, Fernand de La Tombelle and Saint-Saëns.

Christoyannis is in engaging form here, matching every mood with aplomb. There are three standout performances. A Victor Hugo setting Extase generates a gorgeous atmosphere. I like the opulent textures of Désir d’amour to a text by D. Francisco Perpina. I also relish the Henri Cazalis setting Danse Macabre renowned in its form as a tone poem with the vocal line taken by a solo violin. Throughout, Christoyannis gives absorbing expression to his performances of considerable artistry, displaying lovely smooth projection, and a blend of feeling and attractive tone. The baritone does not seem quite as comfortable when under pressure in his high register.

Under principal conductor Markus Poschner, the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana delivers high-quality playing, consistently alert and fluent, well unified with some striking individual wind contributions. The disc was recorded at Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano. I have no problems at all with the sound quality, pleasingly clear, with a satisfying balance between voice and orchestra. The well-presented and detailed booklet contains an interesting and informative essay titled “The Orchestral Songs of Camille Saint-Saëns” by Sébastien Troester. Also included are the French sung texts. I am delighted to report that English translations are provided too. With regard to the programme selection in this collection, my only grumble is not including some songs for soprano or mezzo-soprano, thus missing out on additional variety. At just over fifty-eight minutes, it must be said that the playing time of the disc is rather short. It would be good if the Alpha label could turn its attention next to Saint-Saëns neglected works for chorus, a cappella or with orchestra.

I hope this recording does not slip through the net. It is a rewarding collection of rarely heard orchestral songs that deserves to be heard. Saint-Saëns admirers should be in their element with this release on Alpha Classics.

Michael Cookson

Previous review: Raymond Walker (Recording of the Month)

Track listing
Angélus [3:42]
L’attente [1:43]
Rêverie [2:52]
Mélodies Persanes, Op.26: La brise [2:22]
Extase [4:00]
La feuille de peuplier [2:03]
L’enlèvement [2:07]
Les fées [2:50]
Souvenances [3:36]
Désir d’amour [2:14]
Les cloches de la mer [3:17]
Mélodies Persanes, Op.26: La splendeur vide [4:23]
Le pas d’armes du roi Jean [4:10]
Les cloches [3:20]
Papillons [3:03]
Plainte [2:40]
Aimons-nous [3:35]
Mélodies Persanes, Op.26: Au cimetière [3:51]
Danse Macabre, Op.40 [2:17]



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