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Sérénade de Ruy Blas

First line:
À quoi bon entendre
composer
1873
author of text

 
The novels of Victor Hugo are long and complex, but one marvels at his mastery of concision in many of his lyrics. This little serenade from the play Ruy Blas (Act 2 Scene 1) is a good example of Hugo’s eloquence in the least number of words, and this is a poem made for music. And as if to prove a thesis that the greatest song composers respond best to fine poetry, this song marks a new high point in the thirty-two-year-old composer’s output. We have heard many intimations of musical distinction in the Chabrier songs of 1862 (including the jewel-like Chants d’oiseaux) but nothing about this song would allow us to date this Sérénade in 1863 as some scholars would have us believe. It sounds like mature Chabrier from first to last, which is why we prefer to follow Roger Delage who ascribes it to 1873. A copy of the delightful setting of the same poem by Saint-Saëns (1868, recorded on Hyperion CDA66856) exists in Chabrier’s hand. This alone would suggest that Chabrier had turned to the older composer for inspiration before making his own setting.

The key is C major, a fact that is cunningly disguised in the prelude, only two bars but filled with musical activity – gently dancing left-hand semiquavers ornamented by accented passing notes which give the music an atmosphere both musing and coquettish as if illustrative of a lover’s sighing attempts to define love. The marking is ‘Moderato, poco scherzando’ and each 3/4 bar is full of amazing detail: staccato markings as well as legato, accents and diminuendos, a ‘ritenuto’ and an ‘a tempo’. This insouciant exploration of a C major and G7 chords in various disguises could have been written by no other composer. The singer enters with the first appearance of C major unadorned – but not for long. The gentle question implied in the words is clothed in ethereal music with pianistic and pedal effects in the accompaniment, not to mention a feeling for rubato, which belong to Chabrier alone. We know how painstaking he was when composing his music and the craftsmanship here suggests many hours of work. The twittering of the birds in the piano writing at ‘L’oiseau le plus tendre’ is a moment of inspired daring, and the return of the prelude at the end of the verse shows us that the composer had been inspired by the idea of birdsong from the beginning.

The middle two verses have a different character: the vocal line is counterpointed by dance-like figurations with right-hand demisemiquavers and staccato bass notes. In each of these the singer seems to be inventing the vocal line as she goes along, as if it were only after some thought that all these comparisons with nature were being made, bringing her back to the same loving conclusions. These musings makes the music’s increasingly outré chromatic explorations seem spontaneous and utterly natural. The sheer sexiness and rapture of the song’s dénouement are astonishing – the ‘vive flamme’ of Hugo’s words seems to spark into life with the rapture of Chabrier’s palpitating syncopations. In tender contrast the phrase ‘Cette fleur de l’âme’ dies away, the voice gently doubled by the piano in preparation for the song’s last, and best, surprise. On a lingering A flat pedal, and marked ‘Quasi lento’, the voice murmurs ‘S’appelle l’amour!’. With the second syllable of that last word a miracle occurs: the left-hand A flat slips down a semitone to G natural and, suddenly at Tempo I, we find ourselves once again on the second inversion of C major with which the song’s introduction had begun – indeed we now hear a reworked version of that delicious prelude. This juxtaposition represents a musical encapsulation of the word ‘l’amour’ with agony and melancholic uncertainty given their due at the same time as love’s flirtatious and exciting side. It is at moments like this that Chabrier seems to have a Wolfian ability to set words. And if this seems surprising one only need reflect that both these composers from seemingly irreconcilable worlds derived the eloquence of their musical languages from the same inspirational source – the operas of Richard Wagner.

from notes by Graham Johnson © 2002

Details

Track 13 on CDA67133/4 CD1 [2'08] 2CDs

Track-specific metadata for CDA67133/4 disc 1 track 13

Artists
ISRC
GB-AJY-02-13313
Duration
2'08
Recording date
29 March 2001
Recording venue
Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel, Hampstead, London, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Mark Brown
Recording engineer
Julian Millard
Hyperion usage
  1. Chabrier: Songs (CDA67133/4)
    Disc 1 Track 13
    Release date: July 2002
    2CDs
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