This is the premiere recording of Fauré’s complete Vocalises, a thirty-strong collection which has lain undiscovered for over a hundred years. Written when Fauré was Director of the Paris Conservatoire, these exquisite vignettes find new life in this performance by acclaimed trumpeter Jonathan Freeman-Attwood and French piano music expert Roy Howat, who edited the newly discovered works for publication in 2013.
The 'bonus tracks' are taken from Jonathan's earlier recordings La trompette retrouvée and Trumpet Masque and provide a little Baroque counterpoint.
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Not often does the opportunity arise to publish over thirty hitherto unknown pieces by a major composer from a century ago. How good is the music? How did it lie so long unpublished? The first publication of the Complete Vocalises of Gabriel Fauré (Peters Edition, 2013) addresses these questions on paper but nothing speaks more vividly for the music’s quality than performance.
The pieces’ background is straightforward, if born of unusual circumstances; in 1905 Gabriel Fauré was suddenly appointed Director of the Paris Conservatoire, in the wake of a dramatic scandal (following Maurice Ravel’s exclusion from the final round of the Prix de Rome composition award). One of Fauré’s first priorities was the total reformation of how singing was taught, to steer it away from a long-entrenched obsession with second-rate grand opera. Study of art song was made mandatory, along with vocalises to ‘develop vocal suppleness, articulation and voice placement and production’. During 1906-16 Fauré accordingly composed vocalises as sight-singing tests for the Conservatoire’s various exams through the year, from admission exams to the final public graduation recitals. For several decades these were regularly reused for sight-singing exams (and thus kept under lock and key, with no thought of publication). Eventually they fell out of use, their manuscripts deposited at the French National Archives where they lay dormant for over half a century. Their first collected publication in 2013 forms part of the new Peters Critical Edition of Fauré’s complete songs (edited by Roy Howat and Emily Kilpatrick), a project whose preparation has been based at the Royal Academy of Music with support from the Arts and Humanities Research Council.
The surviving manuscripts of these vocalises offer a rare glimpse into a composer’s (or conservatoire director’s) busy working life. Composed without posterity in mind, they are mostly written on odds and ends of manuscript paper, sometimes using reverse sides of old draft pages for published works like piano impromptus or the opera Pénélope. Some were probably dashed off during busy weeks in the office; some suggest a sudden inspiration taking Fauré by surprise; others again evince considerable thought and preparation, perhaps in developing a musical concept from an existing repository of material. Careful revisions visible on several of them attest to the care Fauré took over them. Once tidied up, these complete drafts were then used by the Conservatoire’s official copyist to prepare tidy scores for exam candidates and juries to read from.
Perhaps surprisingly, the level of technical difficulty varies unpredictably from piece to piece and month to month, ranging from the (apparently) elementary to some really advanced virtuosity. ‘Apparently’ here is a key word, for even the simplest-looking ones mercilessly test the performer’s acuity of pitch and rhythm, as well as basics of voice placement. As for musical style, they come from a decade in which Fauré’s songwriting was almost exclusively focussed on two song cycles to poetry by Charles van Lerberghe, La chanson d’Ève and Le jardin clos. If the unusual, almost capsule-like individuality of these two cycles is little mirrored in the vocalises, except perhaps the Vocalise-étude of 1907, this is hardly surprising; the song cycles were responding to a very individual vein of poetry, whereas the vocalises were written to quite different ends, without lyrics in mind.
What the vocalises do strongly echo is Fauré’s other major endeavour of those years, his single opera Pénélope. Not for the first time, writing stage music for a classical story spurred Fauré to bold rhythms and fanfare-like thematic outlines, all of which equally characterize his vocalises. In fact fanfare-like gestures are surprisingly pervasive of Fauré’s musical language; here they immediately explain why even some of the simplest vocalises reveal bold colours and surprisingly dramatic character when enunciated on the trumpet. Many of the more sophisticated ones also take harmonic or textural corners on two wheels, so to speak, in ways that must have been terrifying for the student candidates obliged to sight-sing them. Bars full of flats can suddenly give way to sharps or vice versa, including such standard ‘banana-skins’ as an A-sharp tied to a B-flat, or an accompaniment that will suddenly fling itself into a new key under a sustained solo note, to which the singer is forced to hang on for dear life. One quickly guesses how Fauré’s reforming zeal at the Conservatoire earned him the nickname ‘Robespierre’.
That zeal also extended beyond conservatoire gates. Almost certainly at Fauré’s instigation, the Conservatoire voice professor Amadée-Louis Hettich compiled a series of Vocalise-études for publication (by Éditions Leduc: the series, which eventually ran to numerous volumes, is still in print, including contributions by Paul Dukas, Maurice Ravel, Charles Koechlin, Reynaldo Hahn, Olivier Messiaen and Francis Poulenc). The first volume in the series, published early in 1907, opens with an offering by Fauré. Not used for conservatoire sight-singing, this extended Vocalise-étude (No 28 in the Peters Edition) may cast light on an astounding specimen among Fauré’s Conservatoire vocalises (No 29), comprising an extraordinarily complex and haunting Bach-like cantilena in F minor of a difficulty unparalleled in Fauré’s other vocalises. Even the Conservatoire singing students were spared having this one thrown at them; it was unleashed instead on instrumental students as a sight-singing test in May 1907. That date, along with the piece’s more extended length and hair-raising virtuosity, suggests it may have been initially planned for Hettich’s collection but perhaps deemed too difficult.
In an Appendix, the Peters Edition of Fauré vocalises presents a smaller number of Conservatoire Vocalises from the years 1910-5, surviving only in scribal copies that leave the composer unidentified. They are almost certainly by Fauré; their style, very similar to his known vocalises, is completely different from those contributed by any other composers. Even the fact of their being unattributed is telling; the Conservatoire normally preserved original manuscripts from other contributors (who, unlike Fauré, habitually supplied them on good paper, signed at the end). Such breaches of protocol would most obviously be explained by the pieces in question being by the Conservatoire’s own director. Mostly on the shorter and simpler side, the autographs of these unattributed pieces were probably written on odd scraps of paper that may have been lost or even discarded after copying. A few of them figure in the present recording (tracks 30, 32, 35 and 36), along with the complete ensemble of those known definitely to be by Fauré.
While the Peters Edition orders Fauré’s vocalises by increasing technical challenge, integral performance demands rethinking of this. By spontaneously reading the music’s varied ‘affects’, Jonathan Freeman-Attwood aptly places the pieces in a context central to Fauré, whose Pavane, Op 50, along with songs like Clair de lune, Mandoline and the Madrigal, Op 35, evokes to perfection the antique imagined world of fête galante. A ballet compiled by Fauré in his last years, Masques et bergamasques, acknowledges this natural affinity, drawing in earlier works including Clair de lune, the Madrigal and the Pavane. Perhaps one day the present vocalise sequence might even invite a related choreography or storyline.
Why the trumpet, one may well ask, for a first recording of vocalises? The topic has already been raised of inherent fanfare in Fauré’s music and Jonathan’s note expands on that. One other particular reason presents itself. Not written with sequential performance in mind, these vocalises were deliberately designed to test vocal technique to the limits in the laboratory, as it were, and in doing so they spare the music itself barely more than the singers. In addition, several decades of editing Fauré’s music have highlighted the vigour and precision of articulation endemic to his music. Despite how he has often been viewed, Fauré is repeatedly on record as deploring any slackness or understatement in performance (‘a metronome incarnate’ was his singer colleague Claire Croiza’s description of him and he would more often surprise colleagues with quick, well-marked tempi than with languorous ones). Several of the vocalises imply natural tempi that push limits of vocal technique but lie more easily within the ambit of trumpet, whose range of articulation and cantabile can easily encompass Fauré’s bold contrasts of ‘edge and caress’—as Jonathan aptly puts it—extracting the music from the didactic or exam contexts that necessarily spawned it. Perhaps it takes a fellow-conservatoire director to dare this challenge.
A final musico-technical observation is prompted by the vocalises’ chordal accompaniments, deliberately kept simple by Fauré for exam purposes. An early Adagio by Fauré for cello and organ shows exactly the same genre of accompanying texture; effectively an early stage of compositional unfolding. When Fauré later came to publish that piece with piano accompaniment (as Romance, Op 69 for cello), he made the accompaniment more pianistic simply by opening out the original chords into rolling figurations that assure fluidity and narrative-like articulation in the accompaniment. Exactly the same generic relationship can be discerned between the chordal accompaniments to Fauré’s vocalises and the more varied piano textures in his songs. This prompted the present recording to explore how Fauré might similarly have loosened up a vocalise piano part, focusing here on No 20 with its affinity to Fauré’s celebrated song Lydia. For its own part, the melody of Lydia famously worms its way through Fauré’s later song cycle La bonne chanson (whose opening progressions in turn are reprised verbatim by No 25). From there is but a short step to sensing the muse of Lydia, and her eponymous scale, haunting the ethos of the cocalises which we have the pleasure of presenting here in their first recorded performance.
Roy Howat © 2014