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Thomas Hampson (baritone)
Maciej Pikulski (piano)
rec. Siemens Villa & Teldex Studios Berlin, 2015
Sung texts with English and German translations enclosed
PENTATONE PTC5186681 SACD [57:36]

Thomas Hampson is without doubt one of the most versatile singers now before the public. After an international career of more than 35 years he is still at the top of his trade, and his repertoire is certainly impressive: more than 80 opera roles, extensive activity as concert singer and recitalist, more than 170 recordings and he also is active in research and education. A couple of years ago Warner Classics issued a 12-CD box in connection with his 60th birthday (review). The contents there, culled from the EMI and Teldec catalogues, clearly shows the diversity of his repertoire: Mozart, Verdi and Wagner operas, French and German operas as well – and Britten, German, French and American art songs, Viennese operetta and Broadway musicals and sacred music from Bach to Duruflé. He is a splendid linguist – his many French opera roles are ample proof – but this latest disc, Serenade, is obviously his first all-French recital album.

His choice of composers is quite interesting, most of them famous for other things than songs, or mélodies as they are generally labelled in French. Gounod, Bizet, Meyerbeer and Massenet are primarily famous for their operas, Saint-Saëns wrote in all genres, Chabrier is known for some colourful orchestral works, Chausson’s Poème for violin and orchestra was once enormously popular and the catalogues still brim over with recordings. The youngest of the composers represented here, Albéric Magnard, is also the least known and a fairly rare guest in the catalogues.

But writing mélodies was not just a side-line for several of them. Gounod produced 130, Massenet twice as many and Saint-Saëns around 150. I have not been able to find out how many songs Meyerbeer wrote but Naxos have issued 44 on two CDs and there are obviously more than those. Chausson’s list of works contain 35 mélodies, Bizet’s around 40, Magnard some fifteen and Chabrier just over twenty.

The three Gounod songs are all from his early period, before Faust (1859). Sérénade is one of his most popular and a good example of his talent for creating attractive melodies. Gounod was no barnstorming modernist, he rather had a liking for times gone by, which is apparent also in Ô ma belle rebelle! The beautiful and charming Le chanson du pêcheur, composed when Gounod was 23 but not published until after his death, is a setting of a poem by Théophile Gautier, better known for Berlioz’s setting, titled Sur les lagunes, in the song cycle Les Nuits d’été.

Bizet songs have featured on several discs in recent times, and the delicious Pastorale is a little gem. The elegant and humoristic La Coccinelle (The Ladybug) has an expressive piano accompaniment. The text is by Victor Hugo, who also wrote La chanson du fou (The Fool’s Song) – another pearl from Bizet’s pen.

Meyerbeer’s grand operas, spectacular and pompous, also contain a lot of melodic finesse, and his songs, which I have come to like through the two Naxos discs mentioned above, are really melodious. Sicilienne has also a witty accompaniment, which is not the case in all his songs. Chabrier’s song about the little ducks is full of humour, heard also in the accompaniment.

The three songs by Chausson point forward to the impressionism. His output is not big, since he died in an accident aged 44, but what little there is has a lot of attraction. It should be pointed out that Le temps des lilas later became part of Le Poème de l’amour. I discovered Massenet’s melodies back in the 1970s and I always listen with pleasure to them. Les yeux clos is one of the finest. Heure vécue was composed in 1912 and is in all likelihood one of his last compositions. I get a feeling that he is looking back to olden times, the accompaniment is a bit archaic.

Of the three Saint-Saëns songs two are settings of Hugo: Le pas d’armes du Roi Jean which was composed in 1852 when he was 17 and the in many ways forward-looking but melodically highly attractive Si vous n’avez rien à me dire. Danse macabre is better known as an instrumental piece, and the piano part offers the pianist some opportunities to show off. I am afraid I can’t give an opinion on the Magnard song that concludes the programme. After a few bars the disc got the hiccups and refused to play on. Not even the fast forward button worked. A bit of a disappointment since I have a liking for Magnard’s opera Guercoeur.

The programme is certainly very attractive, as have been several compilations of mélodies that have come my way the last few years. Thomas Hampson has for many years been one of my favourite interpreters of art songs. His deep involvement in the texts and his exquisitely nuanced singing has always been as close to perfection as is possible to come. He belongs to a select company of singers that one can be convinced of being trustworthy. And if trustworthy sounds prosaic – say inspiring instead. He is as inspiring as ever in this programme. His voice is still youthful and flexible – and immediately recognisable even though the ravages of time are noticeable. In forte passages the vibrato (and I know that some people are allergic to vibrato, my wife for instance) is wider than before – though not unduly so. His lovely pianissimo singing – one of his hallmarks – is still enticing, but sometimes he resorts to falsetto instead of a true mezza voce. But it is artistically and tastefully done – and I don’t mind. Admirers of Thomas Hampson will probably be as lenient as I am, and his detractors – yes, I know they exist! – wouldn’t bother anyway. The accompaniments are entrusted Maciej Pikulski, who is building quite a reputation these days, and he is excellent. The liner notes are really interesting reading, giving a lot of new insights, but I still have a problem with notes that don’t follow the order of the songs on the disc.

In summary, this is a wonderful programme, excellently performed by one of the great communicators in the world of performing arts.

Göran Forsling

Charles GOUNOD (1818 – 1893)
1. Sérénade (Victor Hugo) [3:35]
2. Ô ma belle rebelle (Jean-Antoine de Baïf) [2:46]
3. La chanson du pêcheur (Théophile Gautier) [5:43]
Georges BIZET (1838 – 1875)
4. Pastorale (Jean-François Regnard) [2:49]
5. La Coccinelle (Victor Hugo) [4:43]
6. La chanson du fou (Victor Hugo) [2:22]
Giacomo MEYERBEER (1791 – 1864)
7. Sicilienne (François-Joseph Méry) [4:30]
Emmanuel CHABRIER (1841 – 1894)
8. Villanelle des petits canard (Rosemonde Gérard) [2:09]
Ernest CHAUSSON (1855 – 1899)
9. Chevalier Malheur (Paul Verlaine) [3:53]
10. Cantique à l’épouse (Albert Jounet) [3:01]
11. Le temps des lilas (Maurice Bouchor) [3:41]
Jules MASSENET (1842 – 1912)
12. Les yeux clos (Gaston Buchillot) [2:17]
13. Heure vécue (Madame M. Jacquet) [1:49]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835 – 1921)
14. Le pas d’armes du Roi Jean (Victor Hugo) [5:05]
15. Danse macabre (Henri Cazalis) [2:28]
16. Si vous n’avez rien à me dire (Victor Hugo) [3:08]
Albéric MAGNARD (1865 – 1914)
17. Les roses de l’amour (Albéric Magnard) [3:32]



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