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Le sentier sombre

First line:
Il est un sentier sombre
author of text

Even allowing for Chabrier’s tendency to flirt with undistinguished poetry, this poem takes a special booby prize. In the context of music as sophisticated as this, the idea of a Heidi from the mountains singing a song dear to the shepherds is ludicrous even by the inane standards of the hack poetry favoured by the romances of the period. (We are reminded that Verlaine’s Fêtes galantes dates from only seven years later, 1869). Nevertheless Le sentier sombre is a love poem of sorts with a nostalgic slant and that is all Chabrier requires to make a song brimming with his special musical characteristics. The introduction is unashamedly orchestral: a tutti for impetuously plunging strings (right-hand octaves descending, then ascending, the keyboard) which gives way to rolling triplets in the manner of an aria accompaniment. There is much made here of the difference between the E flat minor of verse 1 (the narration implies the past tense without actually using it) and the sudden blaze of E flat major for verse 2 (‘Car tous nos souvenirs’). The same key change applies to the other four verses which are paired in a similar way in this strophic structure.

The use of sly left-hand acciaccature, which are applied to harmonic pressure points here and there to prick them into more vibrant life, is once again typical. Just before ‘Alors mon cœur’ in the first verse (and in the corresponding place in the third and fifth verses) the composer adds an expressive ‘Ah!’ to the poem which is underpinned by a gentle echo of the music of the preceding two bars – both hands in the treble clef. This rarefied etiolation, a sudden switch to the music of dreams, is the purest of Chabrier, as is the sheer exultation when the music explodes into E flat major, bass octaves throbbing in ecstatic jumps beneath as the cobwebs of the minor key are blown away. The vocal line at this point, ornamented with shakes and acciaccature, is also extraordinary (note the idiosyncratic plunge of an octave at ‘ta personne!’). The end of each musical verse (i.e. the end of strophes 2, 4 and 6) is inflated to a grandeur that is hard to sustain and to take seriously. And yet how much more lovable is this than the throbbing triplets of the late Gounod songs with religious texts where the composer aims for a mood of sublime and sanctimonious piety. All Chabrier wants to convey here is ardour – admittedly on an inappropriately operatic scale. There is something so reckless about each verse’s final syllable– a lunge at a high G with a crushed grace note thrown in – that one finds oneself smiling involuntarily. And then we realise that this composer is perfectly aware of how ridiculous it is to make a big musical fuss about a little pathway, and how much he enjoys emphasising the paradox. One suspects that the copious exclamation marks in the score were not to be found in the original poem; if, as seems likely, they derive from Chabrier himself they could be indicative of what seems to be, in part at least, a cheery send-up.

from notes by Graham Johnson © 2002


Chabrier: Songs


Track 6 on CDA67133/4 CD1 [5'47] 2CDs

Track-specific metadata for CDA67133/4 disc 1 track 6

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 6
    Release date: July 2002
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