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Alice Coote is the darling of the world’s opera stages and recital halls—to the extent that her solo recordings are rare events. In this much-anticipated French Songbook, Graham Johnson lends his incomparable insight to this most remarkable of talents on an emotional rollercoaster through twenty-three songs of Gallic love in all its guises.
This programme of nineteenth- and twentieth-century French song includes love-songs both familiar and cherished on the one hand, and lesser known and exquisite on the other. In the first half, love is mostly bliss, even if a tinge of melancholy awareness that all such happiness is transitory peers through on occasion. In the second half, bygone love is mourned and remembered, whether in pain or sorrowful acceptance, while song in a uniquely French mode of philosophical contemplation—miniature meditations à la recherche du temps perdu—dominates at the close.
We begin and end with songs by the twentieth-century master of mélodie Francis Poulenc, starting with a work—Les chemins de l’amour—that contains and sums up the major themes of this programme. It was composed in 1940 (the year the Germans marched into Paris) for the great singer and actress Yvonne Printemps (1894–1977), married to the actor/director/screen writer/playwright Sacha Guitry from 1919 to 1932, as part of Jean Anouilh’s drama Léocadia (one of Anouilh’s ‘pièces roses’ or ‘rose-colored plays’). Here, a quintessential Parisian waltz-song is turned into an elegiac paradigm of love, loss, and memory; when all else fades, may I remember the time of your first touch, the singer pleads. The way in which this melody sways back and forth between higher and lower pitches is irresistible; one feels cradled in it, as if in a dancer’s or a lover’s arms.
Next, we go from twilight to night in two love songs by the Caracas-born, half-German Jewish, half-Venezuelan composer Reynaldo Hahn, among the most elegant denizens of belle-époque Paris. (We trace times of day, and seasons of the year and of life in this programme, as well as the many faces of love.) 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’).
The alternating chords in the piano throughout Les étoiles, when played very smoothly and softly, shimmer like the stars hymned in Théodore de Banville’s poem from the anthology Rondels composés à la manière de Charles d’Orléans of 1874. (Banville, who inveighed against both Romanticism at its most excessive and Realism, was a proponent of chiselled rhymes and forms and the cult of beauty in verse.) The luxuriant melody unfurls en route to the rhapsodic climax at the words ‘Ces fournaises de diamants’ (‘These diamantine furnaces’) shortly before the end.
Le secret is a setting by Gabriel Fauré—that consummate master of French song—of a poem by Armand Silvestre, a civil servant in finance and the creator of understated erotic verse that appealed to composers because it left them room for music. No one will have any difficulty decoding the sweet secret of this song, a solemn hymn to love at morning, night, dawn, day and sunset.
Two winsome songs of love at its newest and freshest are next, both the invention of the prolific Charles Gounod. One of the most influential French composers in the last half of the nineteenth century, Gounod occupied himself mightily with opera (Faust, Mireille, Roméo et Juliette, among others), but he also wrote 100-plus songs, in which he sought to instil greater harmonic substance and stylistic elegance in the earlier French tradition of strophic song, or romance. Scholars dispute about who invented the mélodie, Berlioz or Gounod, but both men played their roles in the transformation of French song. The great French Romantic writer Victor Hugo’s Sérénade celebrates love and song alike, so it is no wonder that composers were drawn to it. In Gounod’s setting, its lilting swing-and-sway irresistible, the serenader’s hand sweeps over the guitar or mandolin strings, with the piano taking their place for this occasion, between the vocal phrases. In the refrains, the urge to embellish invades the singer’s part as well: love takes flight. The poet and dramatist Jules Barbier, who wrote the libretto for Gounod’s Faust, also gave the composer the words for Au printemps, a song that rejoices in springtime love; each strophe ends the dulcet invitation, ‘Come, let us be happy’, as its refrain. Conjoined with triplet-laden breezes and springtime rustlings in the piano, most of the singer’s phrases rise upwards, as if ascending to happiness.
Family tradition steered Emmanuel Chabrier into law school and a career in the Ministry of the Interior, but his civil service post did not prevent him from a full life as a composer. A portly fellow beloved by many, he was a Wagner enthusiast who was moved to tears by his first experience of Tristan and was portrayed by Henri Fantin-Latour at the piano with a Wagner score. Chabrier’s Toutes les fleurs is a floral catalogue-song penned by Edmond Rostand, author of the ‘smash hit’ Cyrano de Bergerac. This hyperbolic song brings Tristan into the drawing room to épater everyone present with its theatricality. To the song’s dedicatee Ernest von Dyck (appropriately, France’s first Parsifal), Chabrier wrote, tongue-in-cheek (or not), that ‘you have to show at least 64 teeth and the third couplet has to be sung with white eyes and your hand on the seam of your fly, with crazy slobbering and downright diabolical fieriness’. A thorough understanding of the Wagnerian tonal revolution, a marvellous sense of the ridiculous, and passages of aristocratic delicacy to vary the delighted excess regnant elsewhere meet and mingle in this work.
Self-critical and pessimistic, the late nineteenth-century French composer Ernest Chausson wrote beautiful songs before his early death in a freak bicycle accident. Le temps des lilas is perhaps Chausson’s most famous song, the essence of nostalgia for all that slips away from us as time goes by. The writer Camille Mauclair once described Chausson as having the appearance of someone ‘rising from mid-dream and taking a step towards reality … he was one of those who concern themselves their entire lives with their inner existence’, and we hear in this song a pattern typical of this composer: a beginning in elegiac melancholy, anguish and turbulence in the middle section, and a return to opening strains now made even more haunting at the close.
Fauré’s Fleur jetée is sometimes compared to Schubert’s Erlkönig because of the repeated octaves and pounding chords in the piano, filling the air with a sound-and-fury that is atypical for Fauré—but these two geniuses are not really alike. In this song we are swept along au gré du vent, the ‘wind’ in this instance being Fauré’s inimitable way with harmony. The composer Florent Schmitt once stated that Fauré was ‘more profound and more of a musician than Saint-Saëns, more varied than Lalo, more spontaneous than d’Indy, more classical than Debussy, more inward and more deeply felt than Chabrier’, yet this song renders even these comparatives seemingly inadequate.
The six poems of Hector Berlioz’s song cycle Les nuits d’été (Summer nights) all come from the anthology La comédie de la mort (The commedia of death, 1838) by Théophile Gautier. The persona of Le spectre de la rose is a rose that had been a girl’s corsage one evening at a ball and is now a ghost that haunts her dreams, his death one a king might envy. Of the many beautiful details in this expansive song, one might note in particular the change of tonal location to a darker, richer place when the rose invokes the girl who wore it the entire night long (Berlioz’s harmonic language was radical in its time), the reverent address ‘O you who brought about my death’ mid-song, and the long chromatic descent when the rose avers that no Mass or De profundis is needed, that it is now a sweet scent from heaven.
A leading figure in the French musical renaissance of the 1870s, Camille Saint-Saëns was a child prodigy at the piano (‘He knows everything but lacks inexperience’ was Hector Berlioz’s witty assessment of the young composer-performer). An early defender of Wagner and Liszt, Saint-Saëns also helped promote the music of Bach, Handel and Mozart in France; as a teacher at the École Niedermeyer, founded to improve musical standards in French churches, he taught Fauré, who became a lifelong friend. Through most of the first two strophes of Saint-Saëns’ ultra-Romantic hymn to Love’s all-conquering power, Aimons-nous, we hear a ritualistic march of solemn, rich chords in the piano; from the final couplet of the second strophe, the motion quickens, leading to a triumphal conclusion and a reverent ‘Amen’ cadence for this prayer to love, its ‘celestial lilies’ a rhapsodic transformation of more earthly blossoms. The mastery by which Saint-Saëns bids the voice at the beginning to sink downwards slowly and sensuously, then rise in a more impassioned and quicker-moving passage, tells us why this song is beloved.
Two songs that continue this theme of love as the rhapsodic peak of existence close out the first section of this programme, before the mood darkens and time takes its toll on love and life alike. According to Graham Johnson, Chabrier’s L’île heureuse combines the grand sweep of Tristan und Isolde and the delicacy of Watteau’s immortal painting L’embarquement pour Cythère, whose beautiful young people set forth on a voyage to Cythera, the mythical island of Venus and love. The way in which Chabrier tints the murmuring waves of the accompaniment with shifting harmonic colours bears witness to his uniquely French assimilation of the Wagnerian revolution in music.
The elegantly mustachioed Alfred Bachelet—conductor at the Opéra in Paris, director of the conservatory in Nancy, and composer—wrote his best-known song, Chère nuit, for the great Australian coloratura Nellie Melba. This is mélodie at its most opulent and operatic, replete with the lushest Romantic harmonies, rapturous quivering figures in the piano-cum-orchestra, and ecstatic high notes galore.
Soirée en mer is a testament to Saint-Saëns’s love of the poetry of Victor Hugo, who was a passionate republican (after royalist beginnings), ardent advocate for those unjustly treated, politician, anti-clerical lion, artist and prolific poet. In this song, an expansive, lyrical melody floats on rising-and-falling waves in the piano. In the alternation between major and minor chord colours at the end, we hear the encapsulation of Hugo’s contrast between the dark waves below and the enchanted stars above, between the beloved person who sees God smile and the poet who sees man weep.
Claude Debussy, who called himself a ‘French musician’ in opposition to Germanic/Wagnerian music, took part in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century’s revival of earlier French poetry for musical setting. La grotte is one of three settings of poetry by the seventeenth-century dramatist François l’Hermite, who wrote under the name Tristan l’Hermite, a powerful if shadowy figure at the court of Louis XI in the late fifteenth century in real life and a character in Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris and Sir Walter Scott’s Quentin Durward in his fictive afterlife. This song is emblematic of Debussy’s signature stylistic mannerisms: the clouded harmonies that refuse to resolve in properly Germanic manner, the repetition of small patterns (the languorous pulses on each beat), the separation of the piano part into different registers, and the singular patch of pure triads to tell us that this grotto is where Narcissus died.
In Hahn’s Fumée, its words penned by the Symbolist poet Jean Moréas (the nom de plume of the Athenian-born writer Ioannis Papadiamantopoulos), the persona sees his life—by extension, all life—as akin to smoke: both come from fire and last but an instant before vanishing. Complex harmonies drift upwards note-by-note, culminating in suitably smoky, clouded chords in the treble register. At the end, the final nebulous harmony wafts even higher into the ether, followed by an empty low bass pitch: perhaps the néant (nothingness) into which we all vanish.
Debussy christened Erike Satie ‘the precursor’ because he anticipated so much of twentieth-century music, from total chromaticism to minimalism; his trademark ironic wit is built into his compositions. An antidisestablishmentarianism type from the start, he disdained his formal training at the Paris Conservatory, calling it ‘a sort of local penitentiary’. (He would later pursue formal studies at the Schola Cantorum.) An habitué of the cabarets in Montmartre, where he worked as an accompanist, he wrote music-hall songs for Paulette Darty, ‘the queen of the slow waltz’, including Je te veux. These songs strike deeper than one might think; here, a woman freely confesses her desire.
A Romantic writer who won praise from none other than the redoubtable critic Charles Sainte-Beuve for her poetry, Augustine-Malvina Blanchecotte creates in La chère blessure the psychological portrayal of remorse and guilt that are actually cherished because they impel the persona back to a lover he or she once mistreated. For such dark complexities of the human heart, Reynaldo Hahn concocts wonderfully brooding, dissonance-laden harmonies against which the voice mostly murmurs on repeated pitches. When the persona sings of ripping ‘your name’ out of her heart in the past, the vault upwards at ‘arraché’ (plucked, torn, ripped) is all the more intense in the wake of the chanting that precedes it.
The son of a wealthy textile industrialist, Charles Koechlin studied composition at the Paris Conservatory with Gabriel Fauré, who was the greatest influence on his life and music. Koechlin began his long career with a spate of songwriting from 1890 to 1909, with some twenty further mélodies following in the World War I years and 1920s. The first harmony we hear in his Novembre is as dark, muffled, and grey as a November day, and the entire song is shrouded in gloom. The persona remembers bygone love and faith; thinking of gravestones with their flowers, he brings November’s prayer to his dead dreams. No wonder we hear bells for the dead tolling in the piano.
To close this album we hear Francis Poulenc once again, in four different moods that recapitulate the trajectory of this entire programme, from giddy delight to elegy. Voyage à Paris and Hôtel both come from Poulenc’s wartime song cycle Banalités to poems by the Surrealist poet Guillaume Apollinaire. Voyage à Paris is a giddy whirl of a waltz-song, and captures Poulenc’s joy whenever he returned to the city he loved most. ‘For me’, he wrote, ‘Paris often brings tears to my eyes and music to my ears’. Poulenc and the baritone Pierre Bernac used to perform this song as a mildly malicious encore at the end of recitals in the provinces. When we hear Hôtel (which predates warning labels on cigarette packages), we imagine someone lying in a hotel room in a state of desolate blankness, in the torpor born of despair.
There is no better characterization of La Grenouillère than Graham Johnson’s phrase, ‘a Proustian madeleine in song … very much about the remembrance of things past’. In this evocation of The Froggery, an island in the Seine where the Impressionist painters would go on outings with their girlfriends (Renoir and Monet both painted it), the island of pleasure is now abandoned, a melancholy sight. With its rich, processional harmonies in the piano, this song is Poulenc in his most meditative, elegiac, contemplative mode.
So too is Voyage, the final song on this album—what could possibly follow it?—from Poulenc’s cycle Calligrammes to poetry by Apollinaire. In this elegy for someone loved and lost, we first hear a haunting, spare texture with the piano doubling the singer and sounding a death knell in repeated pitches. As the heart makes Dante’s voyage from the hell of grief and loss to the nocturnal sky above (‘your face that I no longer see’ written in the stars), Poulenc’s signature rich harmonies appear. The distant octaves in the postlude are an unforgettable conclusion to an exquisite song. These are sounds from the realm of death and memory ordinarily beyond our grasp—but a great composer can bring them to us.
Susan Youens © 2015