Musique adorable ! The songs of Emmanuel Chabrrier Import
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(Incluant "Les plus jolies chansons de France") / Felicity Lott, soprano - William Burden, ténor - Stephen Varcoe, baryton - Graham Johnson, piano - Polyphony, dir. Stephen Layton...
Two-and-a-half hours of Chabrier songs may seem overly generous for all but the most ardent fan, but after two discs, listeners will be left wanting even more. As accompanist Graham Johnson says in a note, those "who do not love Chabrier as a composer have not yet taken the trouble to get to know him". The amazing thing is the sheer range of his vocal writing, from rousing tub thumpers to intimate little soufflés, with a good deal of humour, as you would expect of the man who dealt with an unwanted sticky bun by shoving it in Wagners shirt drawer. There could be no better introduction to the music than this glorious set, part of Hyperions French Song Edition. The lioness share of the 43 songs is taken by Dame Felicity Lott, who is second to none in this repertoire, whether in a tender love song or the barnstorming vocal version of the celebrated Espana. She is joined by a first-class line-up, on a set which constantly surprises and delights. The usual scholarly but highly accessible notes by Johnson add greatly to the enjoyment. --Keith Clarke
The songs contain a few surprises, including Chabrier's own setting of 'L'invitation au voyage', which he unfortunately happened to compose pretty much contemporaneously with Duparc's celebrated setting. Recognizing the superiority of Duparc's song, Chabrier suppressed his own version, which seems a shame, as its worth hearing on its own terms, even if it is obviously no match for Duparc. To add to the surprise aspect of this setting, Chabrier includes a bassoon as instrumental accompaniment with the piano; it's difficult to think of another art song that uses piano and bassoon to accompany the singer. Another surprise is a vocal version of Chabrier's orchestral work 'Espana', with appropriately jolly and not-terribly logical words, i.e. there really isn't a story as such to tell, but was simply a way to get 'Espana' into peoples homes outside of concert halls.
In his typically extensive liner notes, Johnson notes Chabrier's tendency not to set the greatest, or at least better, of French poets, although a few famous names filter into his choices of poets and poems to set, like Victor Hugo, Edmond Rostand, his one choice of Baudelaire. He also notes how Chabrier seemed to let one of his more frequent literally collaborators, Catulle Mendes, almost take him for a ride in the folk-song collection 'Les plus jolies chansons du pays de France', where Chabrier was one of two composers to arrange those French folk-songs for publication, but where Mendes came out the much better financially, somehow. BTW, the "(abridged)" in the header comes from the trimming of several strophes from 9 of Chabriers settings, in order to fit all the music on two CDs. In those strophic songs, the melodies in each song remain the same, but parts of the stories get cut as a result, which Johnson acknowledges.
As you would expect from Johnson, he guides the proceedings from the piano with a sure hand throughout. Felicity Lott and Stephen Varcoe are old friends and collaborators with Johnson dating back to the days of the Songmakers' Almanac, and exercise their sure and comfortable touch when working with Johnson. Perhaps Lott veers on slipping into the edge into slightly arch mannerism on occasion, but if so, it's not for long. The American tenor William Burden is the third singer who gets the main share of songs, 11 of them, vs. 19 for Lott and 11 for Varcoe. His French pronunciation is a bit borderline strained at times, but not enough to hinder enjoyment. Two singers closer to the respective starts of their careers, Geraldine McGreevy and Toby Spence, get cameo appearances, 2 songs and 1, respectively, and do well also.
Admittedly, this writer isn't sure that most of the songs would immediately strike listeners as neglected masterpieces. But the listening is never less than engaging and interesting. For admirers of Graham Johnson and those interested in French art song from off the beaten path, this 2-CD set comes highly recommended.