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René de BOISDEFFRE (1838-1906)
Songs, Volume 1
Six Mélodies, Op. 30 [18:13]
Les Echos des bois – Deux Idylles pour chant et piano, Op. 8 (1869) [9:53]
Cinq Mélodies, Op. 39 [12:58]
Larmes humaines (1898) [3:17]
L’Aube (1895) [4:29]
Six Mélodies, Op. 53 (1893) [16:50]
Dominika Paczkowska-Gajdzis (mezzo-soprano); Jakub Tchorzewski (piano)
rec. 12-13 October 2019, Frédéric Chopin State Music School, Warsaw, Poland

René de Boisdeffre was born into a military family in Vesoul in Eastern France. His studies began at the Conservatoire de Paris, but we read in the booklet that Saint-Saëns, only three years his senior, encouraged him to leave, and probably gave him private lessons thereafter. His catalogue of compositions is dominated by chamber music, with vocal works coming in second. His music brings to mind figures such as Gounod and Massenet, and Saint-Saëns can also be detected, though the older composer was capable of a certain boldness that you will rarely encounter in de Boisdeffre’s work.

De Boisdeffre’s music was published in his lifetime, and some of it was deemed worthy of awards. More than a century has passed since his death, with his work neglected to the point that few of us, even lovers of French music, are familiar with it. But those who, on hearing this disc, find his music attractive – and they are likely to be numerous – have ample opportunity to explore it thanks to the efforts of Jan Jarnicki, Artistic Director of Acte Préalable. Ten other CDs, mainly of chamber music, have been devoted to the composer, and though many of his songs are difficult to track down, Jarnicki is committed to recording them all.

Most of the songs on this album are settings of French romantic poets, only a few of whom will be familiar to non-specialists. They are all named in the sumptuous booklet, which also carries a helpful essay on the composer, as well as a descriptive listening guide to each song and biographical information about the performers. All this is given in Polish, French and English, but the sung texts are, less commendably, given in the original French only. The recording is excellent.

The first song, Regrets, is typical of many in this collection. Lost love and the passage of time are evoked in an atmosphere of gentle melancholy. It is probably not great poetry, but affecting none the less, and de Boisdeffre finds the right mix of major key tunefulness and judicious modulation to create a miniature work of art that is greater than its component parts. A nicely lilting accompaniment supports the voice in the third song, Berceuse (‘Lullaby’), with harmonic excursions that suggest the child’s dreams may not all be quite so tranquil. At 5½ minutes, Le coucou, the first of the pair of songs that make up Les Echos des bois, rather outstays its welcome. De Boisdeffre can’t resist a little cuckoo-song in the accompaniment, but other woodland references are rather more subtle. It is in a song such as Si vous m’aimez (‘If you love me’) that de Boisdeffre’s qualities as a song composer are most evident. The melody is immediately attractive and when the speaker turns to more troublesome matters this is well reflected in the vocal line. Repetition of a short phrase at the end of each verse makes for a charming refrain in La jeune fille (‘The Girl’). Charming, too, is the watery piano part in the following La source (The Spring), a rare excursion into illustrative piano writing.

Les Berceaux (‘The Cradles’) sets a text by Sully Prudhomme, though it turns out not to be the same as the one set by Fauré. And the text of La Fleur et le Papillon (‘The Flower and the Butterfly’) is by one Albert Mallac, and not by Victor Hugo (with the protagonists the other way round!) which the young Fauré so delicately put to music. This confusion sent me back to Fauré’s songs, and the comparison – in terms of scope, individuality and penetration into the texts – cannot be said to be in de Boisdeffre’s favour. But we can’t all be Fauré, and here we have a creditable body of work that will bring pleasure, though the composer’s unwillingness to explore extremes means that 65 minutes is probably too much for an uninterrupted session. If you pick and choose, the individual merits of these songs are easy to find and appreciate.

Singing in French is a challenge for anyone who is not a native French speaker. A good language coach helps, and Dominika Paczkowska-Gajdzis has obviously learned the rules. She is let down by a few vowels, the mute ‘e’ at the ends of words in particular, but she fares at least as well as many other singers, some of them more eminent than she is. And then, these problems are more evident because her enunciation is so clear. She is obviously in sympathy with the texts, delivering them with understanding and insight. Add to this a truly lovely soprano voice and a fine mastery of line and phrasing and you have over an hour of fine singing before you.

The piano parts will not have given Jakub Tchorzewski much cause to fear. On many occasions de Boisdeffre has fashioned the accompaniments to reflect the overall mood of the words, but they exist mainly to support the voice, with little attempt to illustrate particular textual points. He was no Schubert. Within these constraints, Tchorzewski has little opportunity to shine in his own right, but he is a fine pianist and a particularly acute accompanist who phrases and breathes with his singer. I should very much like to hear these two artists in other repertoire. A recital of Polish song, for instance, could well be an absolute treat.

William Hedley
Previous review: Rick Perdian

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