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Duo Varnerin
rec. 2019, l’Ancienne Chapelle Claude Joseph Bonnet, Jujurieux, France
Sung texts with English translations enclosed
MUSO MU-033 [53:28]

As an inveterate lover of the guitar – unfortunately the love is not reciprocated from the instrument in question – I try to find song recitals where the guitar is substituted for the piano. More often than not the effect is endearing. Peter Schreier, for instance, has recorded various discs with guitar accompaniment: Weber, Beethoven, Schubert and several others. A lot of the French repertoire of melodies, where the original piano accompaniments often are fairly light and transparent, should lend itself to transcriptions for guitar, and this delectable disc with the sibling duo of soprano Stéphanie and guitarist Mathieu Varnerin amply proves that it works. Their choice of songs is also ingenious and nowhere do I miss the piano when the transcriptions are so sensitively worked out. Many of them are so perfect that they could have been originals, and I believe that listeners coming to the songs for the first time will not ponder over whether these are transcriptions or not. There are of course two important contributing factors: the elegant and nuanced playing of Mathieu and the delicious singing of Stéphanie. Mathieu also has two solo pieces: Berceuse, originally composed for organ or harmonium in 1913-14, as part of Vingt-quatre pièces en style libre, Op. 31 and here transcribed by Mathieu; and Hommage à Debussy (1920), originally for guitar but often heard in the composer’s own transcription for piano. All the transcriptions of the songs are also by Mathieu, except the five by Debussy, where the transcriptions are by Tilman Hoppstock.

The opening four songs by Fauré are all gems and confirm my view that he was the foremost of the French composers of melodies. The best known is no doubt Après un rêve but in this reading it was the setting of Stéphan Bordese’s En prière that touched the heart strings the most. It is sung with the utmost simplicity and catches the child’s naïve and intimate conversation with God: Si la voix d’un enfant peut monter jusqu’a Vous, Ô mon Père (If the voice of a child can reach You, O my Father). Stéphanie’s voice is beautiful and treated with lightness and elegance. Her soft singing is so lovely and she nuances delicately throughout the recital. Her tone has a charming, very personal flutter that becomes wider and brighter when she ventures above mezzo-forte – but this doesn’t happen too often. Involvement and sensitivity are her hallmarks and in this intimate format with a discreet guitar in the background stronger dynamic gestures are mostly superfluous.

If Fauré is an almost indispensable ingredient in a mixed bouquet of French melodies, Déodat de Séverac, a generation younger than Fauré, is a much rarer species. He grew up in Languedoc in the southernmost part of France and after some years in Paris, where he studied with d’Indy and Magnard and also worked as assistant to Albeniz, he returned to the south where he also died, not yet 50. Vocal music was his real chore, even though he also wrote chamber music and some quite successful piano works. Besides settings of poetry in Occitan (the historic language of Languedoc) and Catalan (the historic language of Roussillon) he also set French poets of his own time. Stéphane Mallarmé (Un Rêve) and Paul Verlaine (Paysages tristes) are represented here. I wouldn’t mind hearing more of his oeuvre, since the four songs on this disc, as well as the fairly few I’ve heard earlier, have wetted the appetite.

Reynaldo Hahn, almost contemporary with Séverac, is a much more well-known quantity. Born in Caracas, Venezuela, to a German-Jewish father and a Venezuelan mother of Spanish heritage, he moved with his family to Paris when he was three and there he quickly assimilated the French atmosphere. Studying for Massenet, Gounod and Saint-Saëns, among others, and with Alfred Cortot and Maurice Ravel as fellow students, he became more French than any of them. Soon he was a success as pianist and singer in the Paris salons, and his songs were sometimes dismissed as salon pieces. But tastes have changed and today he is held in high esteem. Quite recently Bru Zane issued a box with his complete songs – the best sign of general acceptance. The four songs on the present disc are all from his top drawer, and so delicious they are. They will be frequent guests in my CD-player for months to come.

Debussy as a composer of melodies has long been established. While not so immediately catchy as Hahn’s, they have a delicacy of their own and like so much valuable music, they need to be savoured through repeated listening, maybe only a few at a time. The five items collected here should be a suitable starting point for inquisitive readers. Beau soir is of course one of his pearls, and once under the spell of this beautiful evening song it is easy to enjoy the rest. The fifth, Les Angélus, is a truly atmospheric picture of the church bells, “ringing for the heart still to hope” at dawn. The sounds of the bells, so exquisitely caught in Debussy’s piano accompaniment, are just as magical in the guitar version – the difference being that they are a little more distant.

This evening song should be an ideal finale to this basically low-key recital, but Duo Varnerin obviously wanted to end on a more cheerful note and offer not one but two encores that sweep away what gloom that has hovered over the programme. De Séverac’s Vaudeville, lively and enthusiastic, manages exactly that and it is almost a pity that they didn’t stop there. Satie’s La Diva de l’Empire is one of my favourite French songs in a more light-hearted vein, but it loses something of the verve and devil-may-care that Satie intended when there is no piano letting go. It is well enough done anyway – but listen to Elly Ameling and Dalton Baldwin or Carol Farley with orchestra backing up. There sparks are flying!

“Grump!” I can hear readers mutter – and OK: It’s not bad but the rest is great. Buy, read the liner notes for deeper insights and enjoy!

Göran Forsling

Gabriel FAURÉ (1845 – 1924)*
1. Notre amour, Op. 23 No. 2 (1879) [2:21]
2. En prière (1890) [3:19]
3. Le secret, Op. 23 No. 3 (1881) [2:14]
4. Après un rêve, Op. 7 No. 1 (1877) [2:32]
Déodat de SÉVERAC (1872 – 1921)*
5. Renouveau (1898) [2:09]
6. Temps de neige from 12 Mélodies, No. 2 (1903) [2:23]
7. Un Rêve from 12 Mélodies, No. 3 (1901) [2:47]
8. Paysages tristes(Soleils couchants) (1898) [1:28]
Louis VIERNE (1870 – 1937)*
9. Berceuse en la majeur, Op. 31 No. 19 (1914) pour guitare seule [3:47]
Reynaldo HAHN (1874 – 1947)*
10. L’heure exquise from Chansons grises, No. 5 (1893) [1:58]
11. L’Énamourée from 20 Mélodies Vol I, No. 5 (1892) [2:53]
12. À Chloris from 20 Mélodies Vol. II, No. 14 (1916) [3:01]
13. Fêtes galantes from 20 Mélodies Vol I, No. 11 (1892) [2:23]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862 – 1918)**
14. Beau soir FL 84/(6) (1891) [2:08]
15. L’âme évaporée et souffrante (Romance) FL 65/(79), No. 2 (1885) [1:37]
16. Paysage sentimental FL 55/(45), (1883) [3:40]
17. Le son du cor s’afflige vers les bois FL85/(81), No. 2 (1891) [2:37]
18. Les Angélus FL88/(76) (1892) [2:08]
Manuel de FALLA (1876 – 1946)
19. Homenaje (Hommage à Debussy) (1920) pour guitare seule [3:07]
Déodat de SÉVERAC*
20. Vaudeville des batelières de Saint-Cloud (1905) [1:36]
Erik SATIE (1866 – 1925)*
21. La Diva de l’Empire (1904) [3:08]
*Transcriptions for voice and guitar Mathieu Varnerin
**Transcriptions for voice and guitar Tilman Hoppstock

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