This set was originally issued on three LPs back in 1984, and later condensed into two very well filled CDs and is still available as a download. As such, it is an excellent way of collecting all Ravel’s song settings, the singers all being well chosen for the songs they are allocated. It also has Michel Plasson in charge of the orchestral and chamber accompanied songs and that master accompanist, Dalton Baldwin, at the piano.
We start with Teresa Berganza singing Shéhérazade, orchestrally fine and well sung, but Berganza is just a little anonymous and the performance doesn’t stay in the memory as do those by, say, Crespin, Hendricks or Baker, all of whom are more vivid storytellers. The orchestral contribution by Plasson and his Toulouse orchestra is splendid. This is followed by the Vocalise en forme de Habanera and Chanson espagnole, ideal performances in which Berganza finds the erotic sensuality that had eluded her in Shéhérazade.
Next up is Gabriel Bacquier, who is entrusted with Histoires naturelles, Sur l’herbe and Chanson française. These are superb performances, Bacquier finding just the right sense of ironic derachment for the Renard settings, his enunciation of the text so clear you can all but taste the words.
Mady Mesplé’s clear, bright, very French soprano with its characteristic flutter vibrato is not to everyone’s taste, but I like her, and she is absolutey charming in the Greek songs, including the less regularly performed Tripatos. She also gives us lovely performances of three rarities, Ballade de la reine morte d’aimer, Manteau de fleurs and Rêves. José Van Dam gets the Hebrew settings, Don Quichotte à Dulcinée and five more songs, of which Les grands vents venus d’outre-mer is especially notable. To all he contributes the sterling virtues of his beautiful, firm bass-baritone, coupled to sensitive treatment of the text.
Felicity Lott, charming in the Noël des jouets and Chanson écossaise, also has the Mallarmé poems, in which she is suitably languid, if a little diffident. She is also good in the two Clément Marot settings, but Maggie Teyte gets more out of the words on her recording. Jessye Norman brings the collection to a close with the Chansons madécasses, as well as Chanson du rouet and Si morne. As usual, Norman is never less than involved, but as so often I find she sings with an all-purpose generosity, and I’d have welcomed a little more of Janet Baker specificity. Still this is nitpicking, and hers are still among the best versions of these wonderful songs. Throughout the piano accompanied songs Dalton Baldwin provides superbly idiomatic playing, with the Ensemble de Chambre de l’orchestre de Paris providing the accompaniment for the Mallarmé settings and Michel Debost on flute and Renaud Fontanarosa on cello in the Madegascan songs.
Altogether, this is a wonderfully rewarding set and, if individual performances have been bettered elsewhere, all are more than adequate and many a great deal more than that, though, on this occasion, it is the gentlemen who take the palm. Warmly recommended.