Pierre Bernac & Francis Poulenc – Mélodies

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Poulenc:
Banalités
Chansons villageoises
Quatre poèmes de Guillaume Apollinaire
Tu vois le feu du soir
Main dominée par le coeur

Debussy:
Beau soir
L’écheonnement des haies
Le Promenoir des deux amantes

Ravel:
Histoires naturelles
Mélodies hébraïques

Satie:
Trois mélodies

Pierre Bernac and Francis Poulenc had a long and fruitful working relationship, going back to 1926 when Bernac gave the first performance of Poulenc’s Chansons gaillardes (not included on this disc). They first appeared in recital together in 1934 and continued to do so until Bernac retired from public performing in 1960. In fact the majority of Poulenc’s songs were written for Bernac and I suppose one could say that they enjoyed a similar relationship to that of Britten and Pears, without the emotional attachment, apparently always using the polite ‘vous’ with each other at all times.

Bernac’s voice was evidently not large but he had an enormously varied tonal palette which enabled him to capture every shift in mood, every emotion, implied or overt, in each song. Though the voice was not of itself of great natural beauty, its range was wide and Poulenc exploited this to great effect. Bernac was also a great teacher, numbering Gérard Souzay, Elly Ameling and Jessye Norman among his pupils, and he wrote with great insight about the art of singing. His The Interpretation of French Song is an absolute must for anyone interested in performing this repertoire.

Bernac and Poulenc left behind quite a legacy of recordings, most of them recorded for EMI and RCA in 1947. However these Columbia sessions took place in 1950. The Poulenc selection is self recommending, but he is equally at home in the songs of Debussy, Ravel and Satie, embracing the lyricism of Debussy’s Beau soir, the slightly detached irony of Ravel’s Histoires naturelles or the parodic wit of the Satie songs.

Anyone who enjoys the subtle art of French song should definitely hear them.

Crespin’s Shéhérazade

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Crespin’s recording with Ansermet of Ravel’s Shéhérazade and Berlioz’s Les Nuits d’été is now so famous, so universally acclaimed that there can surely be no more to say about it. Even today, almost 60 years since they were recorded, the performances are still cited by many as a first choice in both works and for many they were no doubt their first exposure to the works, so maybe that is all that needs to be said about them, but is it really so simple?

Both Shéhérazade and, especially, Les nuits d’été are great favourites of mine and I now have ten different recordings of the Berlioz, six of the Ravel. Let us then start with the Ravel. From the thrice repeated call of Asie at the beginning, the third sung with the equivalent of a flirtatiously arched eyebrow, we are in her thrall. She makes a bewitching storyteller, drawing us in with her thrillingly colourful descriptions of the Orient. As I often feel with Crespin, there is a slight air of detachment but here it suits the narrative superbly. She is suitably languid in La flûte enchantée and deliciously ambiguous in L’indifférent. There have been finer versions of the orchestral score (not least the New Philharmonia under Barbirolli for Janet Baker), but Crespin at her best is still a prime recommendation. There is something just so inevitably right about her singing and it places her (just) ahead of the other versions I own, (Teyte, Baker, De Los Angeles, Berganza and Hendricks).

That air of detachment I mentioned also makes her an ideal interpreter of the songs of Poulenc and also Debussy’s Trois chansons de Bilitis with John Wustman on the piano, from a 1967 recording, which are here included as a makeweight, and very welcome they are too. However it works against her in the Berlioz, which requires a degree of involvement and passion that I find lacking in Crespin’s delivery. However musical and tasteful her singing, however elegant her phrasing, she remains aloof and uninvolved. There is no sense of mounting rapture at the arrival of the rose from paradise, no sense of longing in Absence. She is at her best in the final song, L’île inconnue which is blithely insouciant and responds better to her air of suave sophistication. I have no idea why she decided to place Sur les lagunes after Absence but it upsets the balance of the work too.

No, for the Berlioz my prime recommendations would be Baker either with Barbirolli or live with Giulini, Hunt Lieberson with McGegan, Steber with Mitropoulos or De Los Angeles with Munch, Crespin trailing quite a way in their wake.

Essential I would say for Shéhérazade and the Debussy and Poulenc, but look elsewhere for the Berlioz.

David Daniels – Serenade

Quite aside from David Daniels’s pre-eminence as a Handel singer, he could also be credited with treading where few countertenors dare to go. In this mixed recital he adds to the more usual countertenor repertoire of seventeenth and eighteenth century song, Lieder by Beethoven and Schubert, French chanson by Gounod and Poulenc and English song by Vaughan Williams. Other recitals will see him venturing out into American song and Broadway, and he even made a recording of Berlioz’s Les Nuits d’Eté. He has never been one to cofine himself to the usual areas of countertenor repertory.

To all he brings great beauty of voice, a superb legato and a fullness of tone rare in countertenors, and an innate musicality. This fullness of tone is not a mere fabrication of the gramophone as I saw him live on many occasions and can attest that the voice rang out freely in all the venues I heard him. In addition he has a winning personality with a rare gift of communication, which comes across in all his discs.

Many of the songs here are concerned with night (the disc, after all is called Serenade) and the pervading atmosphere is therefore one of quiet reflection, but gaiety puts in an appearance too, and we note the singers facility in fast moving music, without a hint of an aspirate. We also note how the singer’s expression changes from one song to another, making us feel we can see as well as hear.

We start with a group of Lieder framed by Beethoven’s and Schubert’s setting of Adelaide, both beautifully sung. He gives the girl’s voice a suitable urgency and death a darker more consolatory tone in Der Tod und das Mädchen, but the prize of this group is his wonderful performance of Nacht und Träume, his legato impeccable , the long line firmly held. This is beautifully ccomplished singing and absolutely no allowances need to be made for the limitations of the countertenor voice.

From here we move to a group of songs by Caldara, Gluck, Cesti and Lotti, the more usual repertoire for this type of voice. Caldara’s Selve amiche soothes the soul, whilst Lotti’s Pur dicesti, o bocca bella is irresistibly light and charming. The Gounod and Poulenc items are all superb, the Vaughan Williams beautifully characterised, finishing with a movingly heartfelt Hands, eyes and heart.

The final items bring us back to more familiar countertenor territory, with joyful performances of Sweeter than roses and I’ll sail upon the Dog Star, followed by an eloquently comforting Evening Hymn, which brings to a close an eminently satisfying recital. Martin Katz is throughout a worthy partner.

As I said earlier, I saw Daniels live on many occasion, and this recital replicates to perfection what it was like to hear him in the concert hall. There was never any difficulty hearing him and he had the rare ability of drawing the audience in, of making each person feel he was singing just for them.

Jennie Tourel – The Singers

Jennie Tourel was born in Russia in 1900 of Jewish parents, but she and her family left just after the Revolution, temporarly settling in Danzig before moving to Paris. She fled to Lisbon just before the Nazis occupied France and from there to the USA, becoming a naturalised Amercian in 1946.

She had an illustrious career both in the opera house and on the recital stage, and was the creator of the role of Baba the Turk in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress. She was still active when death ended her career in 1973, in fact in the middle of performances of Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment in Chicago. The longevity of her career is testament to her sound technique, but if the years were kind to her voice, she was also careful never to overtax it. She knew what suited her and stuck to it.

The dates of the recordings on this disc are unknown, but the Italian and French items are stereo, which would place them at least from the early to mid 1950s. Her voice is still admirably firm, with no trace of wobble or excessive vibrato. Her legato isn’t always perfect, and her runs can be lightly aspirated, which mars her performance of the Rossini items, and also of Bizet’s Adieux de l’hotesse arabe, though she sings it with more personality and drama than many.

Berlioz’s Absence is sung with piano, and is notable for the firmness of the line, though personally I prefer a more inward display of longing. Tourel is too loud in places and she rushes the pharse la fleur de ma vie. Much better are Poulenc’s Violon and Liszt’s Oh! Quand je dors and I particularly enjoyed Ravel’s Kaddish, which exploits her rich lower register.

The Russian items are all worth hearing, beginning with a mournful Tchaikovsky None but the lonley heart, the cello obligato adding to the pervading sense of melancholia. As befits the general mood of the Russian items, she uses a bigger, more dramatic sound, but she can also be lightly high-spirited in a song like Dargomizhsky’s Look darling girls. In all she displays a strong personality and superb musicianship.

Song texts and translations are provided on the disc itself, which doubles as a CD-ROM, though, annoyingy, if you want to read them at the same time as listening to the disc, you will have to print them out before playing the disc on a CD player.