Piers Burton-Page
International Record Review
November 2004

I reviewed, very positively, the second volume of Hyperion’s Debussy songs series in April 2012. That collection, featuring Lorna Anderson and Lisa Milne, included some of Debussy’s best-known mélodies: among them Fêtes galantes, Chansons de Bilitis and the Ariettes oubliées. By contrast, the present set includes only one acknowledged masterpiece, Le promenoir des deux amants, a late set of three songs which the composer dedicated to his second wife Emma. Otherwise, the matter in hand is mostly rather earlier in origin.

As the typically stimulating and superbly informed notes by Roger Nichols indicate, many of the present songs were stimulated by Debussy’s involvement, over more than a decade or so, with a married woman, Marie-Blanche Vasnier. Evidently captivated among other things by her light and agile soprano, he wrote nearly 30 songs for her. Hyperion’s soprano here is Jennifer France, who won the song prize at this year’s Ferrier Awards. There’s no means of knowing if her particular timbre and tone match those of Madame Vasnier, of course, but they certainly seem to suit the demands of the songs themselves – an admirable fit, in fact.

Take something such as La romance d’Ariel (1883), one of five settings here of the poet Paul Bourget. After the third verse, there is a wordless coloratura vocalise, the musical embodiment of Shakespeare’s airy spirit; as done here, it’s beautifully light and floating. The vocalise returns at the end to round off this delicious song in very charming fashion. Wordless coloratura turns out to be a trick that the young composer pulls off more than once. He does so again in Les elfes (unpublished until two years ago, and setting words by Leconte de Lisle). Debussy’s longest song, at nearly seven minutes, it is actually a slightly fey – or maybe it is tongue-in-cheek – dialogue between a Knight and a seductive Queen that goes horribly wrong. This time the vocalise adds a touch of hysteria appropriate to the activities of the mischievous elves of the title, who haunt the scene.

Not great poetry, perhaps; and when we get to Théodore de Banville, of whom there are no fewer than 12 settings in this collection, I confess I began to weary slightly of the endless quasi-pre-Raphaelite effusion, of passion, death, kisses, drooping flowers, pouting lips and all the perfumes of Araby. But France sounds both charming and convinced, and her slightly soubrettish but always attractive sound (unfazed by the occasional stratospheric top note that Debussy evidently threw in, further to entice Mme Vasnier) adds a proper note of youthful abandon, just what these early settings need to bring them to life. Praise is also due to Malcolm Martineau for his total empathy with the always atmospheric but by no means easy accompaniments. The recorded sound is ideal.

Of the 26 tracks in all, 7 are taken, not by the soprano but by an equally up-and-coming baritone Jonathan McGovern. He too is well cast, velvety in sound, easy on the ear. Of the four earlier songs he is allocated, I liked especially his tale of the Sleeping Beauty, to a hideously clichéd poem by Vincent Hyspa: he makes the most of the refrain at the end of each verse, and rises well to the final climax when the energetic Knight has seized Beauty’s ring and rescued her.

McGovern also gets lucky, in that he has the disc’s plum. Le promenoir des deux amants seems to build on the achievement of all these earlier songs. Dense, compressed, languorous yet haunted, it holds one from the very first sensuous harmonies in the piano part. Plenty of fine French baritones have preceded McGovern here – Bernac, Souzay, Panzéra, Bernard Kruysen, to name ut four – but I cannot fault McGovern’s responsiveness to Debussy’s every scrupulous marking, and his French is good, too. (Female alternatives abound as well – Régine Crespin, Ninon Vallin, Janet Baker – and devotees of an earlier French style may also have fond memories of the likes of Maggie Teyte or Suzanne Danco in this wonderful miniature. Portamento, where are you now?)

The final song on the disc, Paysage sentimental, is nicely chosen. It is a return to soprano territory, and to Bourget. France is very touching in the poet’s vision of the death of everything, or almost everything: ‘la mort de tout, sinon de toi que j’aime tant’. Hyperion does not label this as the Complete Debussy Songs, but I think there are still some that do not yet figure. If so, then the present set offers a standard that will be a challenge to maintain.