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Mirages CHRCD159
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Mirages: The Art Of French Song
Roderick Williams (baritone)
Roger Vignoles (piano)
rec. 21–24 May 2019, The Music Room, Champs Hill, UK
Sung texts with English translations enclosed
Reviewed as downloaded from press preview

Roderick Williams has proved several times that he is an excellent singer of art songs. I have myself reviewed recordings of music by Hugo Wolf (Das Italienisches Liederbuch) and Schubert (Winterreise in English) and looked forward to hearing him in French repertoire. In the foreword to the liner notes for the present issue, Williams expresses his gratitude to Champ Hill Records, that he was free to choose the repertoire according to his (and Roger Vignoles’) will. They wanted to build the programme as they would for a live recital, and parts of this repertoire they had already performed at a lunchtime recital at Wigmore Hall. Their idea was to start in a contemplative mood and gradually, in Williams’ own words, grow “into something more voluptuous” and round off the first half with “a riotous drinking song to lead to the interval”. The second half then opens with a “slightly challenging contemporary piece before the reward of some real fun” and then end the evening with “hilarity, mischief and bravura”. And then the encore, something gentle and relaxing that most listeners will know. They also wanted to include, amidst some other familiar music, some lesser known works and lesser known composers and create a programme that is an adventure journey through a French musical and poetical landscape. They have accomplished this with bravura.

Gabriel Fauré’s late cycle Mirages, composed during the summer of 1919, when he was 74, is a suitable starting point. Here we are in a kind of dreamscape: calm, diffuse, in the first two songs we are close to water, in the third in a moonlit garden – everything is recessed and slightly mysterious. In the fourth we witness an erotic dance which, though more lively, is still in a kind of haze. It’s all enchanting, soothing, otherworldly – and Roderick Williams sings with warm tone, sensitively and nuanced. He seldom rises above mezzo-forte and his soft pianissimos are delicate. And we shouldn’t forget his crystal-clear diction.

André Caplet, a generation younger than Fauré, didn’t reach the fame of his elder colleague, for several reasons. Even though he won the Prix de Rome in 1901, he was too busy as assistant to his friend and conductor in his own right, to have much time over for composing. Moreover he was gassed during the war and his lungs were permanently damaged and had to give up conducting after the war, and it was only then he could take up composing. His first creations were the Cinq ballades françaises (1919–20), which consequently are contemporary to Mirages. But they are quite different from Fauré’s. The harmonic language is bolder, the piano part more active, independent and the mood is jolly and lively. In Notre chaumière en Yveline and L’adieu en barque there are long preludes full of fun, and alltogether these are wholly delightful songs, that should be heard more often.

Arthur Honegger’s songs are also rareties, but the two miniature cycles presented here, certainly wet the apetite for further digging into his vocal oeuvre. The five songs constituting Petit cours de morale, to texts by Jean Giraudoux, are certainly miniaturistic: only the last of them exceeds one minute in playing time, and they are witty, entertaining and easy to digest, differing a lot from much of the composer’s often stern instrumental works. Composed in 1941 they were premiered the following year by the great Pierre Bernac with Francis Poulenc at the piano.

They are followed by Maurice Ravel’s Don Quichotte à Dulcinée from 1932-33, in all likelihood the best-known songs in this recital – apart from the encore: Debussy’s Beau soir. The songs were comissioned for a film featuring the great Russian bass Chaliapin, but Ravel was unable to deliver in time, and instead Jacques Ibert stepped in. Both groups of songs are now part of the standard repertoire, but Ravel’s are no doubt the most Spanish of them, especially in the concluding jota, which hilariously depicts the singer’s tipsiness. A rousing finale to the first half of the recital, but maybe also a warning to the audience not to imbibe too much during the interval.

After the interval we meet Roderick Williams also in the capacity of composer. Les ténèbres de l’amour (The dark shadows of love) from 1995, are four settings of texts by Paul Verlaine, whose poems have inspired so many French composers to some of their best songs. Williams explains the background to the songs in the liner notes:

“ I was commissioned by my friend and colleague, baritone Henry Wickham, along with pianist Susie Allan, to write a piece for them to perform as part of their upcoming Park Lane Group recital at the Purcell Room, London. They were already presenting Gabriel Fauré’s La Bonne Chanson in the programme and asked if I would consider, by way of complementary contrast, setting some of the other Verlaine poems from this collection that Fauré had not included in his cycle. I had to work quickly to meet the deadline and delivered the piece to them in two instalments; the first two poems and then the second half, only a matter of weeks before the premiere. Aiming to allow for limited learning and rehearsal time, I devised a style that would allow both performers a certain amount of declamatory freedom, sometimes independent of each other, so that they could do an amount of their preparation separately.

I chose verses that reflected Verlaine’s impatience at the length of his engagement to Mathilde Mauté de Fleurville. However, it struck me as rather ironic that, after these restless, agitated protestations of burning love and devotion, within a year or two Verlaine had grown bored of his wife and notoriously set off on a spree with Arthur Rimbaud instead. I wanted to write music that would allow for similar contradictions; be full of a similar heat of pent-up passion and frustrated sexual energy, mixed with doubt, anxiety, paranoia and depression alongside flashes of hope, love and occasional contentment. The four songs run continuously and are connected by short piano interludes, one of which, I note all these years later, was definitely influenced by the fugue in the final movement of Beethoven’s Op.110 Piano Sonata, a piece I was struggling to learn at the time, with little success.”

I imagine that these songs may be the hardest nut to crack for the listeners in this programme. The idiom is fairly modernistic, atonal but expressive and one can feel that the composer is a singer – the vocal part is “singer-friendly”. The singer and the pianist also sometimes walk separate paths, as is confirmed by Roderick Williams’ note above. I have not yet digested the songs fully but am intent on delve deeper into them in the future. Repeated acquaintance is often necessary when listening to contemporary music. I must add that Williams’ and Vignoles’ readings of the songs are very convincing.

Honegger’s six songs about Saluste du Bartas, a Gascon and protestant poet and ambassador at the court of Henri IV, living during the 16th century, also date from 1941, just as Petit cours de morale, and are stylewise related to them. They are jolly, jovial, rustic, humoristic and possibly ironic as well. The first song has a whiff of cabaret about it and they are truly entertaining.

Francis Poulenc was the chameleon of French 20th century composers. His favourite poet was Apollinaire, whose poems are far from crystal clear. Dans le jardin d’Anna and Allons plus vite were composed in 1938. The first is a conglomerate of feelings, best described as a burlesque, while the second is basically lyrical, almost romantic.

In Parisiana, two poems by Max Jacob, he seems inspired by Satie, another chameleon, in Jouer du bugle, while Vous n’écrivez plus? is another burlesque.

After all these contradictory feelings, Debussy’s Beau soir comes as soothing balm when Williams and Vignoles bid us good evening. We have had a fascinating and refreshing promenade in a poetic French landscape with the best imaginable guides. Many thanks, Roderick and Roger. I hope we’ll meet again soon.

Göran Forsling

Gabriel FAURÉ (1845–1924)
1. Cygne sur l’eau [3:18]
2. Reflets dans l’eau [4:36]
3. Jardin nocturne [3:01]
4. Danseuse [2:47]
André CAPLET (1878–1925)
Cinq Ballades Françaises
5. Cloche d’aube [4:30]
6. La ronde [1:23]
7. Notre chaumière en Yveline [2:38]
8. Songe d’une nuit d’été [2:29]
9. L’adieu en barque [4:09]
Arthur HONEGGER (1892–1955)
Petit Cours De Morale
10. Jeanne [0:36]
11. Adèle [0:46]
12. Cécile [0:59]
13. Irène [0:52]
14. Rosemonde [1:09]
Maurice RAVEL (1875–1937)
Don Quichotte À Dulcinée
15. Chanson romanesque [1:56]
16. Chanson épique [2:56]
17. Chanson à boire [1:55]
Roderick WILLIAMS (b. 1965)
Les Ténèbres De L’amour
18. La dure épreuve va finir [3:24]
19. Va, chanson à tire-d’aile [3:08]
20. Hier, on parlait de choses et d’autres [4:52]
21. Nous sommes en les temps infâmes [2:41]
Saluste Du Bartas
22. Le château du Bartas [1:10]
23. Tout le long de la Baïse [1:26]
24. Le départ [1:11]
25. La promenade [1:31]
26. Nérac en fête [0:49]
27. Duo [2:01]
Francis POULENC (1899–1963)
Deux Poèmes
28. Dans le jardin d’Anna [3:06]
29. Allons plus vite [2:58]
30. Jouer du bugle [1:24]
31. Vous n’écrivez plus? [0:54]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862–1918)
32. Beau soir [2:31]

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