As with many composers, Gabriel Fauré's songs were not intended for recital halls. Rather, they were usually heard by gatherings of friends and acquaintances at salons and other social settings, who would themselves take turns singing a different song. It is an approach emulated by this first volume of a projected complete cycle masterminded by pianist Malcolm Martineau, sharing the songs among eight singers, the range of voice types mirroring a selection of melodies spanning Fauré's output.
As ever, Martineau lifts the music off the page with apparent effortlessness, nimbly flitting around the piano as Lorna Anderson dreamily floats through 'Arpège' or bristling with pent-up energy as Janis Kelly emphatically delivers the scornful 'Fleur jetée'. Jon Chest brings a breezy insouciance to 'Poème d'un jour', the dark hued tones Nigel Cliffe are well-suited to 'Chanson du pêcheur', tenor Ben Johnson skips engagingly through the 'Sérénade toscane', an countertenor Iestyn Davies brings a sense of wonder to 'Lydia'.
The late cycle Le jardin clos finds Joan Rodgers typically relishing the French verse and, if occasionally husky voiced, she conveys heartfelt honesty throughout. The evergreen Ann Murray is a delight throughout, not least in an exquisitely controlled 'En sourdine' from the Cinq mélodies 'de Venise', and one of the recently discovered Vocalise studies. There is scope at times for greater characterisation, but this fine start to the cycle more than whets the appetite for future volumes.