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French Mélodies part 3

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French Mélodies Part 3

I was looking over my CD shelves today and found myself somewhat (OK... not really) surprised that I own far more music by Russian composers than I do by French composers... in spite of my expressed preference (and in spite of the fact that my collection of the greatest Russian composer, Tchaikovsky, is woefully malnourished). What I have come to recognize is that there is a huge gaping void in French music that limits the amount of music I have by French composers and that void is the symphony. There are few (if any) French composers who are truly masterful symphonic composers. Where is the French equivalent of Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, Schubert, Schumann, Mahler, Mozart, Haydn...? Even the British do a better job at this: Vaughan-Williams, William Walton, Cyril Scott, Edward Elgar, etc... But perhaps that brings us back to the French Mélodies for certainly it seems (with the exception of opera... at which the French excel to a certain extent) that the strength in French music lies with the miniature... the cameo... the lyrical musical poem: chamber works, works for solo piano, shimmering concertos for flute and harp (instruments all but ignored in other musical traditions), and of course the mélodies... chanson.

While I have long loved French music, I have never been overly impressed with French performers, orchestras, or conductors... with a few exceptions:
Pierre Boulez, André Cluytens, René Jacobs (who's actually Belgian) and Charles Dutoit (who's actually Swiss). The English, Germans, Americans, and Russians have seemed to lead the field in classical musical performance. Nevertheless, reacting to several stellar reviews in Gramophone and other classical music periodicals I recently decided to check out two French singers: Sandrine Piau...

and Véronique Gens...

Both women are brilliant sopranos. Neither, however, currently may lay claim to the sort of star status of a singer like Anna Netrebko or Renee Fleming... but from the example of their recent recordings both are every bit worthy of, and quite likely well on their way to such recognition.

Sandrine Piau trained as a harpist and studied voice at the Collège Lamartine and the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique du Paris. She is best known for her performances in Baroque opera, having worked with many of the leading European conductors of the Baroque revival, including William Christie, Marc Minkowski, Philippe Herreweghe, Christophe Rousset, and René Jacobs. She collaborated with Ton Koopman and the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra & Choir to record the complete vocal works of Johann Sebastian Bach. Piau's recent recording of Handel arias...

was greeted with glowing... even ecstatic praise by all the major music critics and periodicals.

It is, however, her recording of Debussy mélodies, recorded for Naïve records with Jos van Immerseel on piano...

as well as her disc, évocation, which includes further performances of Debussy, as well as Ernest Chausson, Charles Koechlin, Richard Strauss, Alexander Zemlinsky, and Arnold Schoenberg that I am concerned with here...

Among the marvelous works and performances to be found on these two discs I especially admire Debussy's Les papillons in which the poem of Théophile Gautier is interwoven with shimmering and glittering piano trills which suggest the fluttering of the wings of the butterfly:

Another exquisite song by Debussy (from évocation ) is the wistful L'âme évaporée... taken from Debussy's last song cycle, Deux Romances... his farewell to the genre:

Both of these discs are gorgeous all around, and I cannot recommend them highly enough. I have been playing them repeatedly since they first arrived... in spite of having some 1200 other discs to chose from.

Having made such claims for Sandrine Piau, I should note that if anything the collection, Nuit d'étoiles (Mélodies française)...

performed by Véronique Gens, is even more delicious! Gens studied at the Conservatoire de Paris and won first prize of the school. Her debut in 1986 was with William Christie and his Les Arts Florissants, and like Piau, she has spent much of her career recording and performing Baroque music, collaborating with conductors such as the already mentioned Christie, Marc Minkowski, René Jacobs, Christophe Rousset, Philippe Herreweghe, and Jean-Claude Malgoire. While she began as a Baroque specialist, she has become in demand for roles in Mozart operas, and an interpreter of songs by Berlioz, Debussy, Fauré as well as Joseph Canteloube's Chants d'Auvergne.

Nuit d'étoiles (Mélodies française) contains performances of mélodies by Gabriel Faure, Debussy, and Poulenc. For me the most telling moment of this disc comes during shift from Fauré to Debussy. Gens rounds out her selection of Fauré's songs with Clair de lune and Les berceaux. Les berceaux is a marvelous setting of the poem by Sully Prudhomme... (unfortunately YouTube doesn't have a recording of Gens performance, but they do have a version by the inimitable, Janet Baker):

These two songs by are among the greatest ever written by Fauré, and both stand along with the strongest works in the entire genre of "art song"... including the lieder of Schubert. At the same time, they offer a perfect contrast to Debussy's sensuous setting of Pierre Louÿs erotic Chansons de Bilitis. From the very opening notes of the piano we are aware that this music is entirely something new... something more languorous... something clearly Impressionistic (once again I am unable to find a recording by Gens of this piece, but I can certainly recommend Victoria de los Angeles' version in order to give one a taste):

The contrast between the earlier songs of Fauré and the works of Debussy are made even more explicit by Gens decision to include both composer's interpretations of Verlaine's Clair de lune:

Fauré's version is lilting... wistful... longing... but as brilliant as it is (and it is unquestionably that)...

it is almost nearer in style to the lieder of Schubert and Schumann than it is to the Impressionism of Debussy...

Once again... I cannot recommend either singer highly enough.

Updated 02-14-2010 at 07:38 PM by stlukesguild

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