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Fri, 28 Jan 2005

Faure songs

Au bord de l'eau
Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) - Complete Songs Volume 1

Christopher Maltman; Jennifer Smith; John Mark Ainsley; Geraldine
McGreevy; Stella Doufexis; Felicity Lott; Stephen Varcoe and Graham
Johnson (piano)

Recorded on various dates in 2002, 2003 and 2004
Hyperion CDA67333

Hyperion really seems to be able to do no wrong of late. It is beginning to get embarrassing reviewing yet another excellent release from this label. However, it is all their own work and no brown envelopes change hands. This label, or in the case of so many of the song discs from Hyperion, Graham Johnson, thinks through the project in detail before attempting to record anything. The result so often shows how this pays off - Hyperion are a master class to the major labels in showing how a series or single disc should be approached to maximise its appeal without any risk of "dumbing down" in classical music. All the talk one hears of disaster in classical cd sales seems like so much tosh when faced with a disc like this; these French songs simply cry out to be owned by any listener with an ounce of sensitivity.

French song has always been something of a specialist area, if only because it has not had the exposure of German lieder and presents a language problem to English speaking audiences. However, the latter argument is as relevant to German lieder as it is to French song and the importance of music as an art form that transcends boundaries of national self-interest or even language is apparent in the sheer delight to be had from these songs on a purely musical basis, without attempting to even understand the words. Fauré's success in England during his own lifetime shows this to be the case. That his popularity is perhaps not as wide in England now (the Requiem excepted) is unfortunate.

An understanding of the words however, does lead one to a higher level of appreciation. Fauré wrote songs throughout his career and this first volume of the complete songs takes an imaginatively structured approach. As Graham Johnson points out in his, as ever, elegant booklet notes, the programme adopts a loosely chronological order while all of the songs are focused on Water and its natures. The disc takes its name from the sultry opus 8 no 1 song Au bord de l'eau ("At the water's edge") - here beautifully sung by the inimitable Dame Felicity Lott. It is indeed interesting to note the line-up of singers. Clearly many of the 'big names' of English song are represented on this disc, but while Felicity Lott is well-known as an exponent of French song it is interesting to hear how singers more frequently associated with the English repertoire fare - especially John Mark Ainsley, one of the most quintessentially English of tenors, who finds new reserves of Gallic richness of tone in the charming Opus 7 no 3 Barcarolle and the somewhat austere Opus 51 Au cimetiŹre, wherein he conjures up a beautiful combination of purity of tone, tempered by warmth of colour.

Throughout the recording there is continuous variety. As Johnson points out, with this issue the Hyperion French Song Series moves into the mainstream, the other luminaries of which are Debussy, Ravel and Poulenc. This range of contrast with which Fauré was capable of composing is seen juxtaposed in the Opus 51 Larmes in which Christopher Maltman is able to give full scope to a powerful baritone sound, and the frothy exuberance of the Op 58 Verlaine texts set as the Cinq mélodies "de Venise" wherein Felicity Lott and Graham Johnson conjure up the most delectably camp joie de vivre, especially in the opening Mandoline. It is odd that here Johnson makes an uncharacteristic error in his notes, describing the charming cover illustration of the original print (reproduced in the booklet) as showing a gondola on the lagoon in front of the San Marco basilica, while the picture clearly shows Palladio's famous Venetian church of San Giorgio Maggiore, on the other side of the water facing San Marco. A surprising slip up. Otherwise the notes form a solid and thoroughly informative introduction to the music - a substantial booklet of 37 pages, well illustrated and including full texts and translations of all the songs. Put quite simply, this is how such a disc should be done and one has to look forward to the three further discs that will complete this intégrale of Fauré's wonderful songs.

Peter Wells

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