Like Bizet, however, Chabrier had a fondness for the effulgence of meaty voices at full pelt. This sometimes leads him into making outrageous demands in terms of tessitura. Here he makes the mistake of writing a song that is very low for a tenor and too high for most baritones. As in L’Enfant, the piano’s introduction (a veritable overture of twenty bars) is centred on a left-hand melody – the tessitura suggests a bank of cellos – and such is the composer’s enthusiasm we can even forgive the somewhat predictable nature of the falling sequences which are meant to put a distance between Suzon and the narrator – as if her figure was shrinking in his vision with each successive harmonic twist. As in Lied, the piano establishes a pattern over which the vocal line soars like a low-flying bird, sometimes executing graceful coloratura pirouettes in mid-flight. The effect of this is aimed at providing a pleasing and exciting musical effect – a symphonic totality; any detailed response to words is impossible within this kind of all-embracing musical impetus. The strophic structure also makes some of the later melismas seem pointless and inapposite. It is true that the harmonic changes under the held high G on ‘bien loin’ suggest the object of affection slipping from the lover’s grasp, but touches such as these are rare in an aria which is one-dimensional.
On the other hand the final effect of this song is true to the text: despite the hectic heroics of these ‘bien loin’ phrases (which suggest the high-lying sobs of operatic heartbreak) the overall mood is one of renunciation and gentle melancholy. The postlude dies away in a manner which avoids typical finale tub-thumping and this shows that young Chabrier is sensitive to the scenario. Needless to say the song is never at a loss for melody; the awkward jumps in the vocal line, though extremely difficult, seem truly expressive; and once again the composer revels in challenging his singer to the iron-lung test: tied notes at the end of phrases which seem to last forever.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2002
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