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Enchanté! The Great French Stars - 50 Bonnes Chansons
rec. 1926-61. ADD
RETROSPECTIVE RTS4346 [2 CDs: 158 mins]

While some of tracks on these two discs are drawn from Retrospective issues dedicated to particular singers many others are freestanding. I suppose these others might yet get Retrospective’s single-album treatment but for now the whole span of this set is broad and delightfully instructive. Across the two discs Retrospective have not stinted. There are 25 tracks on each and the two CDs together run not far short of 160 minutes in total. The tracks have been adroitly chosen by Roy Crick and resurrected from shellac and vinyl by Martin Haskell.
They are mostly of singers but not entirely; so, we hear various instrumentalists including ace accordionist Emile Vacher and Reinhardt and Grappelli whose style was once, in the 1970s, reached for on EMI LPs by Menuhin and Previn. There’s also Maurice Alexander's Sous les toits de Paris which we are reminded was used as a signature tune for a long defunct BBC radio programme French Cabaret. That presumably did for French chanson what the wonderful Robert Cushman did so intelligently for music theatre in Book, Music and Lyrics (Radio 3, 1970s into 1980s). Time to bring these things back or repeat them if they still exist in useable recordings.
Chevalier’s Louise is more French than his later versions though he sings in English and very forward. Both his tracks were recorded in New York on two consecutive days. The nasal yet seductive voice of Mistinguett is caught in her three tracks. Her duet in Je cherche un millionare is sweetly cosy and breathes up-close into your headphones or loudspeakers.
“Comme d’habitude” with this label the documentation is “sans pareil”. 26 singers and others are given their years of birth and death and a profile that is lively rather than lifeless and which often stretches out into their immersion in cinema. A counsel of perfection would have been that the words of each chanson were included in the booklet, both in the sung French and in translation but let’s keep it real. Birth names and discographical details are there from which we learn the origins of what we hear. Speaking of which, the sound is generally in good heart except for some blasting on Mon Homme sung by Mistinguett.
One of the nice things about this set, for people with my very meagre knowledge of the genre, is to introduce so many unfamiliar names, Damia is seductive in Cest mon gigolo; likewise, Frehel's La Java Bleue. Lucienne Boyer 's Parlez moi d'amour has a music box intro to introduce her suavely shaped brand of seduction.

Josephine Baker was not French but well and truly adopted and her lightly New York accent in all three songs from the 1930 catch her in affecting torch-song mode. She is the centre of attention in Retrospective RTR4270. Two unusual male-duet stars croon out Couché dans le foin in a sweet and sour blend. Mireille’s quick sing-song is there in Papa n’a pas voulu while Lys Gauty sounds as if she modelled her voice on Baker’s. It works. The Corsican roots of Tino Rossi are heard to great effect in his two songs which are underpinned by Hawaiian touches in Guitare d'amour. Down the vocal scale for Jean Sablon. You can understand why J’attendrai, recorded in 1939, proved irresistible and became the French song of WW2.
There are two breathy swing tracks from Reinhardt and Grappelli. Their Nuages has some spicy thunder-dark moments which are quite out of the popular highway They are more of a ‘byway’ and may yet catch the more classically attuned taste. We end CD 1 with the iconic La Mer from the aristocrat of lightly applied joy and nostalgia, Charles Trenet. The song is a triumph of all-conquering suave yearning and strangely melancholic seduction. Trenet’s songs continue on CD2.
Disc 2 launches with three Trenet songs from French films of the period 1938-43. The almost immanent Boum is from a 1938 film La Route Enchantée. He wrote many songs, as did quite a few of these singers. The three songs here are lightly breathed and virtuoso examples of grey feathery delight and charm. He sings with a lightly knowing manner. Resistance is futile - capitulation is the only option.
The six Piaf tracks present a singer whose voice could hardly be more of a contrast. Her rawly wrought vibrato and emotional vibrancy tipping over into abrasion are all there. Her two signature tracks can be heard: La Vie en Rose and Non, Je ne Regrette Rien.
Les Compagnons de la Channson (RTR4127) appear alongside Piaf but also in an almost ‘churchy’ Auric film song, Moulin Rouge (1953). Guétary belongs in the same honeyed camp as Sablon and Trenet. His two include the lively and poignant Ma Belle Marguérite from the Vivian Ellis musical/film Bless the Bride. Lucienne Delyle sings Sous Les Ponts de Paris which slides by powered by nostalgie and the oil of tears. Georges Ulmer's voice, as evidenced by Pigalle, is also in the Sablon and Trenet mode. With a darker charcoal shading much the same can be said of Italian-born Yves Montand. His famed C'est si Bon is here alongside two others from 1948-49.
Another famed name is that of Georges Brassens. We hear him in two chansons. These have about them a light self-amused melancholy. His singing and his songs served as the model and inspiration for Jake Thackray's English language songs.
Next, a singer who made it onto the international stage: Charles Aznavour. Armenian-born, he became a vibrant presence within France and, through two 1970s songs, outside France. Those two songs were: She and Old-Fashioned Way. Notwithstanding the sometimes caricatured manner his patent smoky throatiness comes across nicely from Sur Ma Vie from a 1955 Ducretet-Thomson single. Paralleling Aznavour's vocal character, Juliette Gréco also had a career as a film star.
Belgian, Jacques Brel's famed Ne Me Quitte Pas is here. One might, in an ideal world, have wanted some representation of Brel's world-weary and acrid songs but this is very moving. The orchestral accompaniment by François Rauber's orchestra stands out as masterly in its minimal textures and leaves the way clear for Brel to make a not inconsiderable impact. Retrospective end CD2 with Gilbert Bécaud's Et Maintenant which combines futile protest at the injustices of love with a remorseless march. It's an excoriating combination.
Perhaps your attention has been snagged by the sound-track of a commercial or by someone's "life-tracks" or Desert Island Disc choices. This is the way to take the next steps. No need to hesitate. At the very least you will be able to hold your own on the subject of French chansons when it next comes up. As a listening experience these two discs offer so much more and they leave head-room for a volume 2 if the label is so minded.
Rob Barnett
CD 1
1. Ca c'est Paris
2. Je cherche un millionaire
3 . Mon homme
4. La mattchiche
5. Louise
6. Valentine
7. La java bleue
8. C'est mon gigolo
9. Sous les toits de Paris
10 . Parlez-moi d'amour
11 . Mon p'tit kaki
12. Dis-moi, Joséphine
13. La petite Tonkinoise
14 . J'ai deux amours
15 . Couches dans le foin
16 . Papa n'a pas voulu
17. Le chaland qui passe
18. Vieni, vieni
19 . Guitare d'amour
20 . Vous qui passez sans me voir
21. Le fiacre
22. J'attendrai
23 . Minor Swing
24 . Nuages
25 . La mer
CD 2
1. Boum!
2. Que reste-t-il de nos amours?
3. Vous etes jolie
4. Les trois cloches (with Les Compagnons de la Chanson)
5. La vie en rose
6. La goualante du pauvre Jean
7. Hymne à l'amour
8. Milord
9. Non, je ne regrette rien
10 . Moulin Rouge
11 . Dors, mon amour
12 . Ma belle Marguerite
13 . Sous les ponts de Paris
14. Pigalle
15 . Clopin, clopant
16 . C'est si bon
17. Les feuilles mortes
18. Les sabots d'Hélène.
19. Je me suis fais tout petit
20 . Je t'aime comme ça
21 . Sur ma vie.
22. Si tu t'imagines
23 . Sous le ciel de Paris
24 . Ne me quitte pas
25 . Et maintenant

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