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Chansons Françaises
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Trois chansons de Charles d’Orléans [6:36]
Paul HINDEMITH (1895-1963)
Six chansons [7:19]
Jean ABSIL 1893-1974)
Le Bestiaire, Op. 58 (1944) [6:12]
Darius MILHAUD (1892-1974)
Quatrains Valaisans, Op. 206 [4:34]
Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Sept Chansons (1936) [12:14]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Deux Chœurs, Op. 68 [6:56]
Philippe SCHOELLER (b. 1957)
Cantate Isis, for mixed choir and bassoon [18:17]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Trois chansons (1915) [6:25]
NDR Chor/Philipp Ahmann
rec. 2013-17, Rolf-Liebermann-Studio, Hamburg, Germany
French texts with German-only translation, booklet essay in four languages
ES DUR ES2074 [67:44]

Photographs in the booklets reveal that the North German Radio Choir numbers some twenty singers. Philipp Ahmann has been their conductor since 2008. This outstanding choir here presents a programme of modern unaccompanied French choral music featuring some ‘classics’ of the repertoire alongside lesser-known works.

Debussy’s lovely songs, the second composed in 1908, ten years after the other two, show the composer referring back to the Renaissance chanson whilst, typically, retaining his own very particular musical personality. The first song is sung as slowly here as I have ever heard it. It is very beautiful, but it would be difficult convincingly to slow down further as the composer demands four bars before the end, and no attempt is made to do so. The second song, with its wordless imitation of tambourine rhythms, is given a robust performance, whilst the tricky final song, a complaint against the cold of winter, is discharged with all the virtuosity required.

Whilst Debussy’s songs are perfectly formed, sophisticated miniatures, the two by Saint-Saëns are conventional and, many will think, rather dull. They represent pretty much what the skilful and professional composer could turn out of a free afternoon. The first song, ‘Calme des nuits’, demands and receives considerable vocal control; indeed, these singers devote as much care to these songs as they do to the rest of the programme.

Considering his remarkably extensive catalogue, it’s surprising that we encounter the Belgian composer, Jean Absil, so rarely. In five songs, of which only one lasts more than a minute, he captures the humour and quirkiness of Apollinaire’s idiosyncratic texts about animals. The music carries traces of neo-classicism and jazz but never strays far from tonality. And they seem a cheerful lot, these creatures: even the song that introduces us to the ‘melancholy’ carp ends on a consoling major chord. This is slight music, swiftly done, superbly sung here and highly enjoyable.

Paul Hindemith’s lovely Six chansons find their way into this collection by way of their texts, written in French by Rainer Maria Rilke. Darius Milhaud also chose Rilke for his Quatrains Valaisans, four-line verses written in homage to the canton of Valais in Switzerland where Rilke lived for a time after the First World War. The subject matter of both works turns around the natural world, the countryside, and the seasons. The two composers respond to the poetry in similar fashion, in music that is melodious, with little in the way of counterpoint and some quite delicious harmonic progressions. The choir is curiously reluctant to sing quietly in ‘Chemins’, the fourth of the Milhaud set, but otherwise gives scrupulous performances of these miniatures. (At twenty-seven seconds Hindemith’s ‘Puisque tout passe’ is the shortest piece in this collection.)

Poulenc’s unaccompanied choral works can be extremely challenging, and his Sept Chansons, settings of Apollinaire and Paul Eluard, are no exception. The NDR Choir masters brilliantly the near-instrumental, wordless accompaniments that occur is several of the songs, and the soloists are very fine. Any listener with a basic knowledge of French will understand the words of these songs, but getting to grips with the sense is another matter. (This is perhaps the moment to state that apart from just a very few vowels and nasals, the sung French of these German singers is impeccable.) The work is a fine example of Poulenc’s ability to lay acerbic sounds alongside some of the most ravishing you will hear in the unaccompanied choral repertoire.

Despite the many technical difficulties, several of the works are frequently found in the programmes of amateur choirs. Not so Philippe Schoeller’s Isis Cantata, a work which is very much the odd-one-out here. There is no indication in the booklet as to the author of the text, which reads like a random series of ideas and images loosely associated with the ancient Egyptian goddess of death, Isis. In any event, the words are treated for their sound value rather than their meaning, and are broken down into their component syllables, with many attributed to drones held for long periods of time. The music is largely static and creates an undeniably powerful atmosphere. The bassoon part, gamely played here by Paulo Alexandre dos Santos Ferreira, is composed of long, held notes requiring superhuman breath control. This flowers, near the end, into a short-lived, two-phrase, melody before, almost literally, dying at the very close. It’s an astonishing performance from all concerned, with a few, minor, extraneous noises suggesting that this might have been a live performance, though there is nothing to indicate that in the booklet.

Ravel’s Trois chansons are his only contribution to the unaccompanied choral repertoire. The first song, ‘Nicolette’, passes through a series of humorous events as the young heroine encounters different characters, some of them shady, during her walk in the countryside. The second, ‘Trois beaux oiseaux du paradis’, is a sad song of wartime, whilst the third is a startling warning to young maidens of all the horrors that await anyone who goes walking in the Ormond Woods. Much of Ravel’s sublime art is contained in these three, short songs. They are outstandingly well performed here, and the astonishingly brilliant third song provides the collection with its dazzling close.

William Hedley

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