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Chère Nuit
French Songs

Louise Alder (soprano)
Joseph Middleton (piano)
rec. 2020, Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk
Booklet notes in English, French and German. English song translations given.
CHANDOS CHAN20222 [80:10]

In the 19th century the French mélodie flourished under composers such as Gounod, Massenet, Bizet and others. For their imaginative French album Louise Alder and Joseph Middleton concentrate mostly on the composers of the generation after this; the possible exception is Pauline Viardot who was born in 1821 but the bulk of her composition was after her retirement from the stage in 1863. The repertoire covers a vast variety of style and mood from the exoticism of Ravel and the impressionism of Debussy and Bachelet to the humour and joi de vivre of Satie, Poulenc and elegant melodiousness of Viardot and Chaminade.

The largest group here is Ravel's magical trio of songs Shéhérazade; originally written for voice and orchestra, we are in excellent hands with Joseph Middleton at the piano. He captures every nuance of Ravel's delicious accompaniment right from the start of Asie; the fantastical vision of far off shores, the schooner sailing across the waves of la mer perverse to towers seemingly hanging in the air, and unimagined denizens of those entrancing destinations. All the 19th century fascination with the worlds beyond the distant horizon is encapsulated in Asie's 9 minutes and Louise Alder matches Middleton in the air of mystery she brings alongside an almost breathless urgency to explore this mystery. In the enchanted flute a slave-girl lies awake while her master sleeps, the restless night depicted in the lively piano part that interrupts the langourous music of the master's slumber. The slave listens to her lover's flute drifting through the night and time and music slow as she imagines its notes caressing her cheek like a kiss. The last song, l'indifférent, tells of unfulfilled desire, the object of the singer's adoration simply passing by, indifferent. Again Alder impresses and one can feel both her desire – just listen to her at et plus séduisante – and her loss. Messiaen's three songs are early, written while still a pupil of Paul Dukas but there are flashes of the composer to come, especially in the exuberant opening of la fiancée perdue. The second song le sourire, the smile, a setting of words by his mother Cécile Sauvage, has a fragile simplicity that is perfectly matched by Alder's performance. Debussy was at roughly the same age as Messiaen was when he composed his three songs and if these are more familiar Alder and Middleton opt for the earlier setting of En sourdine rather than the version from his first book of Fêtes Galantes. Gentle syncopation accompany's Debussy's tender melodic line here and if evening does indeed bring the nightingale's song, the voice of our despair – voix de notre désespoir – this is only hinted at with subtle harmony near the song's end which is otherwise tranquil. Ariel's song is a delight, with all the capriciousness and lightness of Shakespeare's island sprite. I prefer Sabine Devieilhe (Erato 9029576772 review) for her deft touch and more delicate sound in higher registers but that is not to say that Alder's isn't a beautiful version.

Two wonderful Valse chantée here could only be French; Poulenc's own Les chemins de l'amour is very different here from the version I grew up with – that of Yvonne Printemps, the song's dedicatee; naturally enough as I can't imagine anyone singing in the style now for all its charms (what a moment at brûler tes mains!). Again I might be tempted by the more relaxed phrasing of Devieilhe (Erato 90295224271) and I much prefer her glorious final note to Alder's but both this and Satie's Je te veux are sensitively done. Satie's droll cake-walk la Diva de 'l'Empire' is a winner as is Poulenc's brief three-song cycle Métamorphoses. Alder and Middleton are all tenderness in the melting beautiful C'est ainsi que tu es whilst both buzz with the energy of Paganini, an altogether more frothy waltz.
The songs of Viardot and Chaminade are stylistically of an earlier age. Pauline Viardot was the younger sister of the famous soprano Maria Malibran and had a distinguished career as a mezzo, singing many roles for Rossini, before settling in Baden-Baden to compose and teach. She was a gifted musician who had studied piano with Liszt and was close friends with many composers including Saint-Saëns, Chopin, Gounod, Brahms and Berlioz. Indeed with its lovely melody over an accompaniment of gently repeated chords it is the latter that I am most reminded of in her song les deux roses which tells of a shy lover arising early to pick roses for his beloved. Viardot treats the familiar rhythms of the Havanaise to short but demanding coloratura variations but it is the melancholy Haï luli! that for me is one of the most beautiful songs on the album; a girl sits at her spinning wheel lamenting the absence of her good friend and though the refrain changes into the major key it is almost the most heartbreaking part. I shall certainly be exploring more of Viardot's output based on these three songs. Exceptional melodic gift continues in the songs of Cécile Chaminade; her piano works have perhaps overshadowed her other music but her songs are beginning to be explored. La lune paresseuse has an expansive melody over rich piano chords; a girl exhorts the lazy moon not to hide itself behind the clouds but to bathe her in its brilliant light – her fiancé is due and she wants to glow! I will definitely be suggesting Chaminade's exquisite little waltz song L'amour captif to singer friends; our singer has tied down love's wings so it won't be leaving any time soon. Ronde d'amour is a whirling mad cap song; the singer wants to plant love in his garden, along the wayside and anywhere else that it can take root and be discovered by everyone. Joseph Canteloube's boisterous setting of a folksong from the Languedoc region is infectious with its whooping O up! and its cuckoo in the jaunty accompaniment; the off key chromatic lines for the pianist are a marvellous touch.

Alfred Bachelet's Chère Nuit inspired the title of this recital. It is a passionate hymn to love, its slowly unfolding melody calling on the night to unveil its mysteries. To end the disc and joining Poulenc and Satie's street café songs we hear Maurice Yvain's theatre song Je chante la nuit, another dedication to Yvonne Printemps. Alder and Middleton sound perfectly at home in its smoky, sultry atmosphere though without the whisky and cigarette addled voice.

This is a fabulous collection and that it effortlessly places the unfamiliar alongside familiar as well as encompassing such a diverse range of styles demonstrates the thought that has gone into its planning. The rich velvetly texture of Alder's voice is well suited to this music and she has the flexibility to respond to subtle and fleeting changes of emotion; Ravel's Asie is particularly fine in this respect. An album I will return to with pleasure and one that makes me want to visit their Russian connection album (Chandos CHAN20153).

Rob Challinor

Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Shéhérazade (1903) [16:50]
Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1982)
Trois Mélodies (1930) [6:49]
Achille-Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Apparition (1884) [3:43]
En sourdine (1882) [2:57]
La Romance d'Ariel (1884) [4:45]
Pauline VIARDOT (1821-1910)
Les Deux Roses VWV.1055 (c.1866) [2:21]
Haï luli! VWV.1106 (c.1880) [3:32]
Havanaise VWV.1019 (c.1880) [4:58]
Cécile CHAMINADE (1857-1944)
La lune paresseuse (1905) [2:58]
L'Amour captif (1893) [1:43]
Ronde d'amour (1895) [1:59]
Joseph CANTELOUBE (1879-1957)
O up! (c.1948) [1:20]
Alfred BACHELET (1864-1944)
Chère Nuit (1897) [4:57]
Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Les chemins de l'amour FP.106-1a (1940) [3:48]
Métamorphoses FP.121 (1943) [4:46]
Erik SATIE (1866-1925)
La Diva de 'l'empire' (1904) [3:04]
Je te veux (1897) [4:13]
Maurice YVAIN (1891-1965)
Je chante la nuit (c.1938) [4:21]

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