The dedication of this song ‘A Mademoiselle Christine Nilsson’ tells us a great deal. This Swedish soprano was one of the most virtuosic singers of the age and had created the role of Ophelia in Thomas’s Hamlet
(1868) as well as taking part in early performances of Faust
. Bizet had written the extravagantly ornamented role of Catherine for Nilsson in La jolie fille de Perth
, and he has been much criticized for pandering to her desire to show off. Nilsson obviously required music in which she could display the celebrated flexibility of her voice and her range of two-and-a-half octaves. Tarentelle
, no doubt written for one of her many concert tours, proves that Bizet positively enjoyed writing for a singer with a death-defying technique: it is far too good a song to be written off as a concession to vocal vanity. Noske notes how harmonically daring the work is with its adventurous use of sophisticated harmonic devices and risqué dissonances: besides upper and lower pedals, Bizet also use the pedal in an intermediate voice – in the right hand of the piano part. The poem by Pailleron is contained within any numbers of ‘Tra la las’ – a note-spinning device familiar from Guitare
. The middle section of the song in the major key (‘Ma belle où voyez-vous la trace, La trace de l’amant ailé?’) and the Andantino in the subdominant (‘Le flot est rapide et changeant’ – a superbly appropriate piece of water music with a tugging ebb and flow) strike a genuinely touching and poetic note. The composer then embarks on a further round of tongue-in-cheek pyrotechnics. This song, painfully embarrassing in the wrong hands and larynx, is breathtaking in the right ones. As an example of Bizet’s energetic insouciance, that special quality which marks him out as a song composer more daring than most of his contemporaries, it could hardly be bettered.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1998