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|Stephen Varcoe (baritone), Graham Johnson (piano)|
This is the most famous of all Chabrier’s songs. Despise the salons as he might, it was in grand private homes that Chabrier the mélodiste became immortal. His animal songs, jokey assaults on the world of serious art song, took longer to percolate through society (they were chic in the 1920s, just when Duparc was considered dreary by followers of Les Six); but L’île heureuse, which seemed to embody a whole world of fin de siècle nostalgia, struck an immediate chord. It is likely that the young Reynaldo Hahn was singing it before the composer’s death; he made an early record of the song accompanying himself at the piano. There is a wonderful drawing by Jean Cocteau (published in his Portraits-Souvenirs) of Hahn singing L’île heureuse in middle age; by then he was also the regular accompanist of the great soprano Ninon Vallin, and these two recorded a ‘78’ disc which became a benchmark of its interpretation. Francis Poulenc grew up with this performance as we can hear on the disc in which he accompanies Pierre Bernac. These are valuable documents for the younger artist for we are let into the secrets of Chabrier’s laisser-aller rubato; it would be impossible to imagine the freedom, simultaneously excited and languid, with which this music has to be played – hurrying forward here, and dallying deliciously there – without hearing it done by those for whom Chabrier himself was a living memory. That there is nothing else quite like this in mélodie performance reinforces our conviction that Chabrier was a ‘one off’ and that his musical style is unique. In those old records we actually glimpse the performing manner of the composer himself which had no doubt been communicated to the precocious Reynaldo Hahn when still a teenager.
Word and tone fit so well here that it is astonishing that Chabrier had originally composed this music as a setting of Le Printemps by Rosemonde Gérard. Here is the third verse of that poem from Les Pipeaux:
En attendant les chants joyeux
These words fit the music exactly of course – the insinuating triplet for ‘curieux’, the confident rising scale for ‘Montra sa tête’, the confidential downward sweep of ‘Sous les feuilles’ and so on. Chabrier’s decision to transfer his music to Mikhaël’s poem is mysterious (see Introduction, Chabrier and his Poets). But it is clear that in losing a marvellously joyous spring song (it would have been a companion piece to many others in the repertoire) we have gained a musical companion for Watteau’s exquisite L’Embarquement pour Cythère – the painting which depicts the preparations for that enchanted voyage to Cytherea, that island of love and pays de volupté. Thus, almost by default, Chabrier gives us a setting of an idea worthy of the Fêtes galantes, albeit not in a poem by Verlaine, and a worthy travelling companion to Duparc’s L’Invitation au voyage.
The gushing enthusiasm so evident in Toutes les fleurs (and which is so much part of this composer’s style) is here moderated and trimmed of excessive bluster. This is Chabrier’s only piece of water music and by happy chance his spring song is also ideally suited for wind-filled sails. The ritornello, which must sound lovingly casual, as if improvised while smoking a cigarette, seems to ‘cleave the limpid waves’ – the latter beautifully represented by the lapping arpeggios which rise and fall around the curiously convulsive melody heard in the opening bars. Actually, Chabrier’s music suggests a slightly stormy voyage – no glassy sea this: we imagine the corkscrew motion of the prow of the ship rising in the water and, as the piano’s triplets roll down the stave, plunging downwards as the vessel makes for its magic destination.
The entry of the voice announces a wonderfully passionate tune, expansive and full of joy. The composer marks this ‘con slancio’ – ‘with dash’; we can feel the freshness of sea air in our faces. The shape of the vocal line seems to ride the waves – these are undulating triplets in the accompaniment which sometimes push forward or are deliciously elongated to emphasise the meaning of such a word as ‘langoureux’. The song’s three strophes are more or less identical, the necessary differentiation of mood being left to the performers. The melody is utterly memorable despite its eccentricity: it is made up of the seemingly outré leaps and intervals which often show Chabrier at his most inventive. In this late masterpiece the composer has encapsulated all the spontaneity of a bohemian and epicurean existence, all the heady perfume of eternal youth. The promise of sex is also built into the music, not in an earnest or committed way, but with a musical insouciance which betokens guiltless dalliance. This is the secret of that rubato – it gives as much as it takes and, following Blake’s suggestion, ‘kisses the joy as it flies’. When one hears this song with its understanding of ‘the lineaments of gratified desire’, the bizarre and the unusual aspects of Chabrier’s creative spirit seem less exceptional than his sanity. Out of his best music there shines a profound and timeless humanity.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2002
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