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Ernest CHAUSSON (1855-1899)
Poème de l’amour et de la mer, op. 19 (1882-90; rev. 1893) [24.15]
Symphonie in B flat major, op. 20 (1889-90) [35.48]
Véronique Gens (soprano)
Orchestre National de Lille/Alexandre Bloch
rec. 2018, Auditorium du Nouveau Siècle, Lille, France
French sung texts included with English translations
ALPHA CLASSICS 441 [60.07]

On this Alpha Classics release the combination of renowned soprano Véronique Gens performing French repertoire, specifically the music of Chausson, is a prospect hard to resist. Both being completed the same year, in my book the Poème de l’amour et de la mer and Symphonie are amongst this French Romantic’s finest works. With a rich output of recordings under her belt, surprisingly this is Gens’ first recording of this Chausson cycle and it’s a remarkable one, unquestionably worth waiting for.

An underrated composer who is slowly obtaining the attention he deserves Chausson’s music could be described as being positioned where the Wagnarian inspired romanticism of his teachers Massenet and Franck converges with the symbolism of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune and Pelléas et Mélisande. Suffering a bicycle accident that resulted in his death aged only forty-four Chausson left only thirty nine opus-numbered works.

Chausson took around a decade to complete the Poème de l’amour et de la mer (Poem of Love and the Sea) a song cycle for voice and orchestra. The composer’s friend, the Symbolist poet Maurice Bouchor provided the text, which is sometimes criticised for its relative weakness. Chausson, as pianist, accompanied tenor Désiré Demest at the première of the score in 1893. Later that year in Paris the orchestral version of the score was introduced by Gabriel Marie conducting the Orchestre de la Société Nationale de Musique with soprano Éléonore Blanc as soloist.

Véronique Gens sings with reliable focus and potency, able to exploit a full stream of intense and impassioned expression which is sensuous but never in fear of gushing. Especially agreeable is the soprano’s dark hued, resonant tone of voice of the type compared to a Falcon after the French soprano Cornélie Falcon. Singing in her native tongue is a great advantage for Gens over some accounts and as one might expect her diction is impeccable as is her overall voice control. Everything feels so natural and unforced.

The Poème de l’amour et de la mer is well served in the record catalogue by several impressive accounts. I admire eminent soprano Jessye Norman’s captivating 1982 account with Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo (in which she is in very fine voice) conducted by Armin Jordan on Erato (reissued on Warner Apex). Norman’s voice has been viewed as being too heavy for these works but I don’t agree and Gens’ voice sounds even more gloriously powerful. Janet Baker recorded three accounts of the Poème and my preference is for her mid-1970s account with the LSO under André Previn on EMI. Certainly forceful and effective, in my book Baker doesn’t provide the necessary beauty of tone and sensuality that Gens and Norman display in this work. On a 1993 release Francoise Pollet sings marvelously with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo conducted by Armin Jordan on Erato/Warner Classics. Susan Graham too sings well in her recording under Yan Pascal Tortelier conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 2004 on Warner. Another account worth hearing is from 2009 (using Franck Villard’s transcription for voice, piano and string quartet) performed by soprano Salomé Haller with pianist Nicolas Kruger and Quatuor Manfred on Zig-Zag Territoires. Forced to choose a single recording of the Poème de l’amour et de la mer, however, I will reach for this exceptional new account from Véronique Gens.

Chausson wrote only a single Symphonie and he conducted the première at a Société Nationale de Musique concert in 1891 to generally favourable reviews. The influence of his teacher Franck on the writing is marked yet there is more than enough of Chausson’s own individual personality to make this work more than just imitative. Here, under Alexandre Bloch, the Orchestre National de Lille is in captivating form, giving an intuitive account of the Symphonie that feels suitably ample with a rich tone colour.

Although not heard too often in the concert hall there are quite a few accounts of the Symphonie in the recorded catalogues, of which I know some but not all. My first-choice account is from 1960 with Charles Munch conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra on RCA Victor Gold Seal. One of the best-known accounts and one of my favorites too, is from the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal under Charles Dutoit impressively recorded in 2000 on Decca. There is an admirable account from Paul Paray with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra from 1956 on Mercury Living Presence. From 1978 Michel Plasson successfully conducts the Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse on EMI. Another worthy account is the Basler Sinfonie Orchester under Armin Jordan recorded 1985 on Erato (reissued on Warner Apex). In 1997 Yan Pascal Tortelier conducted a commendable performance with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra on Chandos. Competition in the Symphonie is fierce, and Alexandre Bloch wouldn’t be my first-choice account but nevertheless it’s still an impressive performance which stands comparison with many of the recordings mentioned above.

Recorded at the Auditorium du Nouveau Siècle in Lille ,the slightly close-up sound quality is most satisfactory, being clear and well balanced. Titled ‘A Heady, Spellbinding Symbolism’ the essay written by Nicolas Southon is both a helpful and interesting read. With a reasonably short playing time of an hour on the album it’s hard to figure out why the composer’s masterwork Chanson perpétuelle, for soprano, piano and string quartet, Op. 37 isn’t included.

Lovers of French Romantic music will be in their element with this Chausson album. Eminent soprano Véronique Gens gives a quite stunning performance of the beautiful Poème de l’amour et de la mer and Alexandre Bloch and his players are in impressive form with the Symphonie.

Michael Cookson

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