Everything in this song comes together to make a masterpiece: melody, harmonic texture, depth of feeling, the matching of the literary means to the musical. There is a pudeur in this Parnassian-poetry-via-the-Highlands that perfectly suits this composer’s personality. The music murmurs as gently as a cool mountain stream, but it is pungent as peat. When pianists first encounter these rippling semiquavers in G flat major (the fingers caress the black notes, making occasional sorties into the region of the whites) we discover a complex musical language – impossible to sight-read – that masquerades as insouciant simplicity. Each beat of the second and third bars is marked by a bass line that descends via the little finger of the left hand – a perfect mingling of harmony and concealed, or rather implied, counterpoint. Throughout the song every group of four semiquavers forms a new chord, sometimes two; this ever-changing progress, quietly subversive, underlines the more restricted harmonic vocabulary of older French composers, Saint-Saëns for example. Fauré’s range of colour (diatonic harmony enriched by the church modes) produces a kaleidoscope of sound (‘rose de pourpre … clair soleil’) that is both sumptuously muted and iridescent. One thinks of a canvas by a great impressionist or pointillist painter where one sees repose at a distance, and hyperactive brushwork in close-up. This extraordinary combination of seraphic peacefulness and harmonic restlessness is unique to this composer. But this is not simply the tonal conjuring for its own sake of which Fauré is occasionally guilty. In contrast to the Poème d’un jour, we hear in Nell the core of the composer’s being; the whole song breathes an air of shy sweetness and an endless capacity for devotion – exactly the effect of the Burns lyric that inspired Leconte de Lisle in the first place (‘And I will love thee still, my dear, Till a’ the seas gang dry’).
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2005