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Welcome to Hyperion Records, an independent British classical label devoted to presenting high-quality recordings of music of all styles and from all periods from the twelfth century to the twenty-first.
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A protégé of Charles Gounod and Jules Massenet, Hahn became first the lover, then the lifelong friend of Marcel Proust. A fin-de-siècle creature to the core, he was never comfortable in the twentieth century, and on several occasions in his two anthologies of song, he looks back at bygone times with nostalgia. One of his most exquisite mélodies is his setting of the great French ‘poète maudit’ (ill-fated poet) Paul Verlaine’s L’heure exquise, from the poetic anthology Fêtes galantes of 1869. The title comes from the Antoine Watteau’s early seventeenth-century rococo paintings of exquisitely dressed young people playing at love in pastoral landscapes; the melancholy beneath the frivolous surface tells us that all earthly pleasures are brief. In Hahn’s setting, a transparent accompaniment gently rises and falls while the singer’s voice murmurs languorously from within the texture. Because the vocal line is so reticent most of the time, the occasions when it soars are unforgettable. Seldom have gently buoyant leaps been so magical as their threefold invocation in this song (‘Ô bien-aimée’, ‘Rêvons’, ‘C’est l’heure exquise’).
La lune blanche Luit dans les bois; De chaque branche Part une voix Sous la ramée …
L’étang reflète, Profond miroir. La silhouette Du saule noir Où le vent pleure …
Rêvons, c’est l’heure.
Un vaste et tendre Apaisement Semble descendre Du firmament Que l’astre irise …
C’est l’heure exquise.
Paul Verlaine (1844-1896)
The white moon Shines in the woods; From every branch There comes a voice Beneath the bower …
O my beloved.
The pool reflects, Deep mirror, The silhouette Of the black willow Where the wind is weeping.
Let us dream, it is the hour.
A vast and tender Consolation Seems to fall From the firmament Iridescent with stars …
English: Richard Stokes
L’heure exquise from the Chansons grises competes with Si mes vers as the composer’s most famous mélodie. Many of the typically Hahnian features that we have noted in the songs already heard on this disc here come together to achieve a rare perfection of utterance. A flowing accompaniment which starts in the bottom of the left hand’s stave and flows to the upper reaches of the keyboard sets up a hypnotic pattern. Over this the voice begins a gentle melody which is hardly a melody at all, rather a recitation with a ghost of a tune. Modulations in the interlude are eloquent beyond all measure of their sophistication, or even ingenuity. At ‘Ô bien-aimée’ the voice soars a sixth, and as it does so, our hearts skip a beat. Absolute calm returns for the second strophe; once again the voice climbs high at ‘Rêvons’ and plunges into the silky depths for ‘c’est l’heure’. At the third strophe the sense of calm is so great that the vocal line is beset by the most exquisite languor as if the singer scarcely has the energy to move from note to note. At the end, with a jump of a seventh, the singer launches his line into the unknown on ‘C’est l’heure exquise’. This excursion, perilously unaccompanied (has a mere D sharp—on the third line of the treble stave—ever seemed so unattainably high?) seems to reverberate in infinite space. Out of utterly ordinary, even hackneyed, ingredients, Hahn has created a masterpiece. He has also demonstrated his stunning ability to use time and space (rather than melody and harmony alone) as essential ingredients in the creation of a song’s magic. Vistas of calm space and twilight grandeur seem effortlessly evoked.