Mstation Classical Reviews

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Thu, 01 Dec 2005

Graham: Causon, Ravel, Debussy

Ernest CHAUSON (1855-1899)
Poeme de l’amour et de la mer 
La Fleur des eaux [12.05]
Interlude [2.30]
La Mort de l’amour [13.12]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Asie [9.37]
La Flute enchantee [2.55]
L’Indifferent [4.16]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918) orch. John ADAMS (b.1947)
Le Livre de Baudelaire 
Le Balcon [8.13]
Harmonie du Soir [3.55]
Le Jet d’eau [5.52]
Recueillement [5.09]

Susan Graham - soprano
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Yan Pascal Tortelier
rec December 2004, Studio 1, BBC Maida Vale Studios, London, United Kingdom
WARNER CLASSICS 2564 61938-2 [67.44]

During the short period between the late 19th century and the outbreak of the First World War French music underwent something of a transformation away from the Opera/ballet style of Gluck and Meyerbeer and followed the same sort of byways that had lead the French painters of the era to explore the aspects of light rather than object that lead to impressionism. Although the term is frequently used in musical contexts as well, especially when discribing the music of the composers represented in this recital, the important link between all of the composers here is the influence of Richard Wagner. Although the language and nuances of Ravel, Chausson and Debussy could hardly be different from that of Wagner, in the harmonic idioms of the German master lay the seeds of that distinctive French impressionistic harmonic language that is so colourfully represented in these works. Further, although Susan Graham is possessed of a smaller scale of voice than the average (if such a thing exists) Wagnerian soprano (smaller scale of everything, one could say...) in the intensity of dramatic poise in text, and the length of phrase with which she imbues this music, there is a clear resonance of the influence of Wagner’s vocal writing style.

This is clearly apparent in the opening song of Chausson’s Poeme de l’amour et de la mer which even occupies a Wagnerian scale in length. Susan Graham is intimately atuned to this repertoire and devotes much energy to carrying the line of the phrase, while ensuring that the words and individual notes are imbued with resonances of their own. It is impressive singing, of a richness that suits the somewhat melancholy, but always luxurious tenor of the time of composition of these works. She is well matched by the BBC Symphony, here under the recently retired Artistic Director of their sister orchestra, the BBC Philharmonic. Tortelier, French to his toe tips, has already recorded complete cycles of the music of several important early 20th century French composers, including Dutilleux and Roussel as well as Ravel and Debussy. He brings to the orchestra an intimate understanding of the constantly changing light and shade of this music. Especially when setting words, French composers of the period, while managing as mentioned above to write on a scale that is impressive in length, devoted much attention to the inner meaning of individual words, colouring these meanings not only with characteristically piquant harmony, but inimitably distinctive orchestration, often of the most delicate variations.

While Ravel’s Sheherazade songs as not as well known as Rimsky-Korsakov’s eponymous tone poem there is the same colourful orchestration, again impressively relayed by the BBC Symphony. Susan Graham brings more of the feeling of narrative to these works than to the dreamer Chausson poems but the richness of voice is still apparent.

The unusual work on this disc is the settings of Baudelaire by Debussy. Although the orchestrally accompanied song was very popular in Paris of the belle epoque Debussy only ever orchestrated one of these songs – Le Jet d’eau. The other’s are here recorded in orchestrations by John Adams, who has imitated the Debussy style very convincingly. The question that springs immediately to mind, however, is “Why four songs?” Debussy, of course, set Cinq Poemes de Charles Baudelaire. While it is known that Debussy was not one for going back over earlier work, unless paid handsomely to do so by a publisher, there is no explanation given as to the reasons for Adams’ missing song in this set. The four songs as orchestrated stand well as a group, and Adams’ orchestration stays within the limits of Debussy’s own model, except for a delicate scattering of percussion and a bass clarinet, but the fifth poem would have given this orchestral guise more of a connection to the original song cycle. After all, Debussy chose five songs deliberately. As in the earlier works Susan Graham is superb and Tortelier’s marshalling of the BBC Symphony looses nothing in being not Debussy’s own notes on the page. © Peter Wells

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