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Véronique Gens (soprano)
I Giardini
French sung texts included with English translations
rec. 2019 Salle Philharmonique de Liège, Belgium
ALPHA CLASSICS 589 [61.41]

Soprano Véronique Gens’ last four solo albums have been for the Alpha Classics label, a collaboration which is undoubtedly bearing luscious fruit. Gens, together with pianist Susan Manoff, in 2016 won a Gramophone award in the solo vocal category for the album ‘Néère’ a recital of French mélodies from Hahn, Duparc and Chausson (review). In 2017, I savoured Gens’ follow up album ‘Visions’ a collection of French Romantic opera arias that received critical acclaim and awards (review). Last year another impressive album was released. Gens performing Chausson’s orchestral song cycle Poème de l’amour et de la mer coupled with the Symphonie (review).

Now with ‘Nuits’ (Nights), her new album for Alpha, Gens revisits the genre of French mélodies. As the apogee of the Parisian salons in the Belle Époque era most mélodies were usually encountered in the form of voice and piano although more ambitiously some composers such as Saint-Saëns, Ravel and Duparc were masters of the orchestrated mélodie. Here the fourteen-work programme focuses on eleven mélodies for voice with piano and string quartet accompaniment, played by chamber ensemble I Giardini. Three mélodies have been written by the respective composers’ own hands and eight are transcriptions prepared by Alexandre Dratwicki (Palazzetto Bru Zane). Serving as interludes, the three remaining works are purely instrumental works by Liszt, La Tombelle and Widor. Essentially, the programme is designed not only to suit the qualities of Gen’s voice but to widen the mélodie repertoire with voice accompanied by chamber forces and to present well-known examples together with some rarely heard.  

Created by Bru Zane, Gen’s programme has at its cornerstone the theme of ‘Nuits’ (Nights) exploring the different ways poets have described nightfall and dreams. In his booklet essay, Dratwicki explains the theme as ‘the emotions experienced in states of nocturnal abandon.’ The eleven mélodies have been categorised under four descriptive French headings which Dratwicki helpfully describes as ‘the charms of twilight’ (Lekeu, Fauré, Berlioz); ‘the path of dreams’ (Massenet, Saint-Saëns); the terror of nightmares’ (Chausson, Ropartz, Fauré) and ‘the dizziness of rejoicing’ (Louiguy/Piaf, Messager, Hahn).

Singing in her native French, Orléans-born Gens demonstrates compelling form in such frequently beguiling repertoire. Given her impeccable diction, one feels that the soprano is affording each word of the mélodie special attention. Standing out, too, are Gens’ steadfast vocal lines and purity of tone, enriched by her instinctive talent for style, composure and sincerity. Although this album contains so many highlights, I have single out just a few for special praise. There is Massenet’s mélodie, Nuit d’Espagne (The Spanish Night), a setting of a Louis Gillet text. Here, Gens assuredly communicates the heady anticipation of the hero and his beloved making love in dark woods. A Charles Cros setting Chanson perpétuelle (Perpetual Song) is Chausson’s last completed score which he wrote in versions for soprano with orchestra or with piano quintet. While successfully conveying the agony and despair of the forsaken woman, Gens exhibits her high register convincingly in this masterwork. Her performance matches that of Jessye Norman in the best-known recording of Chanson perpétuelle using the same version for voice, piano and string quartet. Accompanied by pianist Michel Dalberto and the Monte-Carlo String Quartet, Norman’s account was released in 1983 on Erato and subsequently reissued on Warner Classics, Apex.

New to me is Ropartz’s exquisite Ceux qui, parmi les morts d’amour (Those who Died from Love). This is Ropartz’s setting of his own French translation prepared in collaboration with Pierre-René Hirsch after Heinrich Heine’s original German text. There is an affecting sincerity as Gens expresses the lovesick protagonist identifying with the ultimate price paid by suicide victims. Memorable, too, is Après un rêve (After a Dream) Faure’s setting of a Romain Bussine poem. Gens provides a satisfying generosity of expression in this exquisite mélodie, a portrayal infused with tenderness. By some distance, the best-known work on this collection is La Vie en rose with a melody by Louis Guglielmi (Louiguy) to a text by legendary French singer Édith Piaf who made the song world-famous. Clearly enjoying it, Gens sings admirably but I find hers and the other cover versions unable to match the individuality of Piaf’s own recordings and her unique relationship to her signature song.

Gens is deftly accompanied by I Giardini, a chamber ensemble founded in 2012 by Pauline Buet (cello) and David Violi (piano) its joint artistic directors. Set up here as a string quartet with piano, I Giardini is impressive with its sparkling contribution, communicating compassion when needed. Violi’s playing on a lovely toned Steinway is striking throughout and in Liszt’s La Lugubre Gondole (The Funeral Gondola) Buet excels, displays a wistful, yet delightful, cello line.

Sound engineer Olivier Rosset achieves satisfying a quality, with clarity and impressive balance. Alpha Classics is to be commended for ensuring that the French sung texts with English translations are provided in the booklet. There are a couple of helpful essays too: ‘Four Variations of the Soul’ written by Alexandre Dratwicki and the other ‘Love of the Night, Love of the Exotic’ by Hélène Cao.

This new album makes a captivating prospect and one difficult to ignore.

Michael Cookson 

Crépuscule. Nuit d’amour 
Guillaume LEKEU (1870-1894)
1. Nocturne, for voice, string quartet & piano (Trois Poèmes)
Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924)
2. La Lune blanche luit dans les bois, for voice, string quartet & piano (La Bonne Chanson, No. 3)*
Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
3. L’île Inconnue, for voice, string quartet & piano (Les Nuits d’été, No. 6)*
Rêve. Nuit d’ailleurs 
Fernand de LA TOMBELLE (1854-1928)
4. Orientale, for string quartet & piano*
Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)
5. Nuit d’Espagne, for voice, string quartet & piano*
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
6. Désir de l’Orient, for voice, string quartet & piano*
Cauchemar. Nuit d’angoisse
Ernest CHAUSSON (1855-1899)
7. Chanson perpétuelle, for voice, string quartet & piano
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
8. La Lugubre Gondole, for cello & piano
Joseph-Guy ROPARTZ (1864-1955)
9. Ceux qui, parmi les morts d’amour, for voice, string quartet & piano (Quatre Poèmes)*
Gabriel FAURÉ
10. Après un rêve, for voice, string quartet & piano*
Ivresse. Nuit de fête
Charles-Marie WIDOR (1844-1937)
11. III. Molto vivace (Piano Quintet No. 1, Op. 7)
Marcel LOUIGUY (1916-1991)
12. La Vie en rose, for voice, string quartet & piano*
André MESSAGER (1853-1929)
13. J’ai deux amants (L’Amour masqué) for voice, string quartet & piano*
Reynaldo HAHN (1874-1947)
14. La Dernière Valse (Une Revue) for voice, string quartet & piano*

* Transcriptions for voice, string quartet & piano prepared by Alexandre Dratwicki (Bru Zane)

I Giardini:
Shuichi Okada & Pablo Schatzman (violins)
Léa Hennino (alto)
Pauline Buet (cello)
David Violi (piano)

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