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Paradis sur Terre: A French Songbook
Andre CAPLET (1878-1925)
Les prières (1914-17) [8:30]
Lili BOULANGER (1893-1918)
Clairières dans le ciel (1913-14) [34:14]
Achille-Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Trois Mélodies de Verlaine (1891) [7:11]
Cécile CHAMINADE (1857-1914)
Ronde d'Amour (1895) [1:58]
Mignonne (1894) [2:39]
Villanelle (1894) [2:16]
Mots d'amour (1898) [2:08]
Si j'étais jardinier (1893) [2:10]
L'Été (1894) [3:32]
Nicky Spence (tenor); Malcolm Martineau (piano)
rec. 13-15 August 2015, Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk
French texts and English translations included
CHANDOS CHAN 10893 [64:44]

Here’s a most interesting programme of French mélodies from Nicky Spence and Malcolm Martineau which is as enterprising in terms of repertoire selection as it is excellent in execution. Much of the music was new to me.

That’s certainly the case with André Caplet’s Les prières. Hugh Macdonald’s very helpful notes point out that these three pieces were composed in 1917, a very difficult time for Caplet. The war was not going well for France; Caplet himself was still recovering from the effects of gas; and the health of his friend Debussy was rapidly deteriorating. Les prières comprises settings in French of The Lord’s Prayer, the Angelic Salutation (‘Hail Mary’), and the Apostles’ Creed. The first two are very restrained, almost confiding, in tone. The music is intimate and the vocal line is akin to a spoken or recited prayer. The setting of the Creed is at times somewhat more fervent in tone but, after all, it is a profession of faith. These are interesting pieces, very sincere in tone, and I’m glad to have encountered them, especially in this sensitive performance.

The Debussy Verlaine settings are the best-known songs on the programme. The first, ‘La mer est plus belle’ depicts both the turbulence and beauty of the sea. Spence’s pliable, expressive voice is well suited. He’s just as expressive, albeit in a different fashion, in ‘Le son du cor s’afflige vers les bois’. Then he and Martineau catch the light eagerness of ‘L’échelonnement des haies’ very nicely.

The selection of songs by Cécile Chaminade offers music that is rather less intense than anything else on the disc. Cultivated and elegant, her songs are well crafted and pleasing. They’re all well done by Spence and Martineau. In particular I liked the delicate, wistful ambience of Mignonne and the infectious gaiety of Villanelle while the exuberantly joyful L’Été brings the programme to an extrovert conclusion.

However, while I can understand the idea of bringing proceedings to a positive end I think that had I been planning this disc I might have been inclined to place last Lili Boulanger’s cycle of thirteen songs, Clairières dans le ciel (Clearings in the sky). That’s because after the melancholy of these settings and especially the soft conclusion of the last song one doesn’t really want to hear anything else.

These songs are settings of poems by the Frenchman, Francis Jammes (1868-1938). His name and work were new to me but I learned from the notes that he wrote mostly on rural or Catholic themes but, as an admirer of Mallarmé, he was also drawn to the Symbolists. Lili Boulanger wrote these songs in Rome – I presume during her time there as a winner of the Prix de Rome. I’d never heard the cycle before but yet again on hearing music by this tragically short-lived composer I found myself regretting how short was her career and, therefore, how little music she was able to compose while at the same time marveling at the quality of what she did manage to write despite her fragile health.

These Jammes settings are suffused with melancholy. Most of them are cast in a moderate or slow tempo. The vocal writing is highly expressive and often takes the singer into cruelly high reaches. The piano parts are richly imaginative; the singer and pianist are equal protagonists and, indeed, there are times when the piano’s contribution is the more important. Quite often I was put in mind of Debussy, both in terms of the vocal writing and the piano parts, but as the cycle unfolded it seemed to me that, especially in the later songs, Boulanger goes beyond Debussy. The music is unfailingly intense and I should imagine that it makes great demands on the performers, not just in matters technical but also in regard to their powers of concentration.

I have no yardstick against which to judge the present performance. There are other recordings, which I have not heard, by Cyrille Dubois (tenor) and Tristan Raës (review); by Anna Fabrello (soprano) and Rafał Lewandowski (review); and by Martyn Hill and Andrew Ball (Hyperion Helios CDH55153). Relying solely on the evidence of what I’ve heard here – and the way in which both the music and the words are inflected – I’d say that the present performance is a good and eloquent one. Certainly the plangency in Spence’s voice suits the music well while Martineau’s piano playing consistently delights the ear.

Once or twice during the programme I thought I detected an occasional inaccuracy in Nicky Spence’s French but these slips, if such they be, are very minor and do not distract the listener. This is a very rewarding programme and I’m delighted that these performers have opened my ears in such a stylish fashion to mélodies that were unknown to me, particularly the important Boulanger cycle.

The recorded sound is excellent. Both performers have been expertly caught by the engineers and the balance between them is very good. The documentation leaves nothing to be desired.

John Quinn

Previous review: Simon Thompson



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