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Le Bal des animaux
Sophie Karthäuser (soprano)
Dominique Visse (counter-tenor)
Eugene Asti (piano)
rec. Teldex Studio, Berlin, 2016
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM902260 [71:19]

This disc is a winner. It works on so many levels: as a thought-provoking survey of the remarkable extent to which French composers in particular have been inspired and stimulated by the animal world; as a carefully planned song recital; as an album into which you can dip easily for ten or fifteen minutes of unalloyed pleasure; and as an approachable anthology of French song which could make many new converts to the genre. I loved it.

First and foremost, the repertoire it contains is highly attractive. Like many non-specialist collectors, I am doubtless apt to underestimate the sheer quality of so much of the French mélodie tradition; all the more salutary, then, to be confronted with a disc containing 33 items, none of which strikes one as remotely weak. That goes for relatively familiar sets such as Poulenc’s Bestiaire, Ravel’s Histoires naturelles and Satie’s wonderfully madcap Trois mélodies, but also for songs I’m pretty sure I’ve not heard before – Lalo’s charmingly upbeat ‘Chanson de l’alouette’, or an early Offenbach setting of the La Fontaine fable ‘Le Corbeau et le renard’, or the splendidly atmospheric ‘Les Hiboux’ by Déodat de Séverac. And it goes also for the poets whose words are set; quite often when covering English or German repertoire, you find yourself wishing that composers had chosen, or had had access to, better texts; but I hardly ever felt that here. We know, of course, that the likes of Apollinaire, Baudelaire or Hugo are good; but I would never have guessed what strong and stimulating song texts would be provided by – to me – unknowns such as Louis Pomey (for Pauline Viardot’s Chopin-based ‘L’Oiselet’) or Victor de Laprade (for Lalo’s lark song). Maybe French composers were particularly adept at selecting poems that suited their own specific purposes; or maybe they just had a lot of good material to choose from.

No doubt some of the songs I have mentioned would be much less effective in lesser performances; but there’s no danger of their being sold short here. Sophie Karthäuser is from French-speaking Belgium, and hence – presumably – has the inestimable advantage of being a native speaker. But she also has the right voice and style for most of these numbers (just occasionally, for example in the Poulenc items, I felt I’d perhaps rather be hearing, say, one of those idiomatically light French baritones, but that feeling didn’t come often). Karthäuser’s lyric soprano is intrinsically beautiful, pure and clear as a bell; but she also offers a tremendous range of vocal colour, a sophisticated sense of style, the ability to underline verbal or emotional detail without disturbing the melodic line, excellent diction, and apparently effortless control of her instrument. Moreover, she is ideally accompanied by Eugene Asti. He too has an utterly secure technique and is immensely skilful in imitating such natural phenomena as a cricket’s chirping (in Ravel’s ‘Le Grillon’) or the gentle lapping of water (in Poulenc’s ‘La Carpe’ or Ravel’s ‘Le Cygne’). Above all, he seems alert to every nuance both of the songs and of Karthäuser’s interpretation of them. There is a real, vibrant sense of partnership – and one which is underlined by a judiciously balanced recording.

Asti is also good in the four solo piano pieces (two by Debussy, two by Ibert) which punctuate the vocal items. When looking at the programme in advance I wondered what purpose these might have – were they hangovers from the desirability of giving the singer a break in a live recital, perhaps, and/or just disc fillers? I also wondered why the various songs from Poulenc’s Bestiaire were divided into two batches, and the three items from Ravel’s Histoires placed as far apart as tracks 2, 14 and 26. Well, of course, no one ordering of 30-plus items is perfect or will please everyone; but it certainly didn’t take long for me to convince myself that I could trust Karthäuser and Asti’s programming decisions. Their recital has clearly been very carefully planned to work well as a unit, both on disc and indeed in the concert hall. The first few items already demonstrate this. Lalo’s lively and almost hyperactively joyful lark is followed by Ravel’s slower and darker piece about an implausibly love-lorn but still pompous peacock. Then, we have six sharp-as-a-pin miniatures from Poulenc and Apollinaire’s Bestiaire, dealing with the decidedly oriental dromedaries of Don Pedro d’Alfaroubeira, the Tibetan goat whose golden fleece is worthless compared to the locks of the poet’s beloved, the locust fit to feed John the Baptist, the dolphins dancing in the sea, the invariably retrogressive crayfish, and finally the long-lived but melancholy carps. So where do we go after that, ten minutes in and with nine remarkably varied songs already behind us? Well, Debussy’s piano piece ‘The Little Shepherd’ from his Children’s Corner is not exactly an obvious choice, but in practice it works perfectly – providing us with just the right mixture of repose and playfulness we need before embarking on Fauré’s airy but somewhat hectic dialogue between the butterfly and the flower and de Séverac’s presentation of his portentous owls. Such intelligent and sensitive sequencing continues throughout the recital – with the sole exception, for me, of the inclusion, just over half-way through, of the duet for two cats, traditionally but almost certainly wrongly, attributed to Rossini. It’s great fun, of course, especially when camped-up as uproariously as it is here by Karthäuser and – in his sole appearance in the album – Dominique Visse. But nothing convinces me it really belongs with the rest of the recital, and I’m resigned to programming it out when I next want to play the CD all through.

Make no mistake, though, this is an absolutely top-notch production. There are full texts in both English and French, some good notes by Denis Herlin, and plenty of artwork in the booklet which strikes me as a bit pretentious, but will doubtless appeal to others more than it does to me. I recommend the whole thing very highly, the more so because there is nothing else like it in the catalogue. The only remotely comparable issue I can find is another new (2018) CD called Bestiaire, featuring the soprano Sabine Revault d’Allonnes and the pianist Stéphanie Humeau, on the Arties label. This has only ten out of 33 items in common with the Harmonia Mundi disc, however; and, whilst I’ve not heard Revault d’Allonnes and Humeau, I can tell you for certain that they’ll have to go some to match Karthäuser and Asti.

Nigel Harris
Previous review: Göran Forsling
Édouard LALO (1823 – 1892)
1. La Chanson de l’alouette [1:31]
Maurice RAVEL (1875 – 1937)
2. Le Paon [4:25]
Francis POULENC (1899 – 1963)
Le Bestiaire, ou Le Cortège d’Orphée:
3. 1. Le Dromadaire [1:11]
4. 2. La Chèvre du Tibet [0:34]
5. 3. La Sauterelle [0:23]
6. 4. Le Dauphin [0:26]
7. 5. L’Écrevisse [0:38]
8. 6. La Carpe [1:01]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862 – 1918)
9. The Little Shepherd [2:29]
Gabriel FAURÉ (1845 – 1924)
10. Le Papillon et la Fleur, Op. 1 No. 1 [2:12]
Déodat de SÉVERAC (1872 – 1921)
11. Les Hiboux [2:55]
Emmanuel CHABRIER (1841 – 1894)
12. Villanelle des petits canards [1:58]
13. Les Cigales [3:29]
Maurice RAVEL
14. Le Grillon [2:58]
Jacques IBERT (1890 – 1962)
15. Le Petit Âne blanc [2:29]
Éric SATIE (1866 – 1925)
Trois Mélodies (1916)
16. 1. La Statue de bronze [1:39]
17. 2. Daphénéo [1:10]
18. 3. Le Chapelier [0:51]
Gioachino ROSSINI (1792 – 1868)
19. Duetto buffo di due gatti [3:27]
Jacques OFFENBACH (1819 – 1880)
20. Le Corbeau et le Renard [2:14]
Reynaldo HAHN (1874 – 1947)
21. Le Rossignol des lilas [1:43]
Georges BIZET (1838 – 1875)
22. La Coccinelle [4:21]
Ernest CHAUSSON (1855 – 1899)
23. Le Colibri [2:38]
Pauline VIARDOT (1821 – 1910)
24. L’Oiselet (sur la musique de la Mazurka Op. 68, No. 2 de Frédéric Chopin) [2:54]
Jacques IBERT
25. La Meneuse de tortues d’or [3:30]
Maurice RAVEL
26. Le Cygne [3:16]
27. La Colombe [0:47]
28. La Puce [0:53]
29. La Souris [0:46]
30. Le Serpent [0:34]
31. Jimbo’s Lullaby [3:39]
32. Pastorale de cochons roses [4:49]
33. Ballade des gros dindons [3:13]