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Recordings

Wagnerian Songs
09 Mar 2006

Wagnerian Songs

If Richard Wagner’s music may be seen to pervade the late nineteenth century, an area that is rarely discussed is his influence on song.

Wagnerian Songs
Songs by Emile Mathieu, Sylvain Dupuis, Richard Wagner and Adolphe Biarent

Patrick Delcour, baritone, Diane Andersen, piano.

Etcetera KTC 1276 [CD]

$16.99  Click to buy

Yet his own Wesendock Lieder (1857-58) reflect an attempt to compose some poignant music at a smaller scale than usually associated with him. Earlier in his career, around 1840, Wagner also attempted to set a series of poems by several French authors, including Victor Hugo, and while he finished many of them, some were unfinished. The Belgian composer Berthe di Vito-Delvaux completed the unfinished pieces, and they may be heard in this first recording of these rare works by Wagner as performed by the baritone Patrick Delcout, accompanied by the pianist Diane Andersen.

The French songs are unique to Wagner’s oeuvre and reflect a side of the composer that soon gave way to other impulses. The six songs involve settings of a text by Jean Reboul, “Tout n’est qu’images fugitives”; one by Pierre de Ronsard, “Mignonne”; three poems by Victor Hugo, “Extase,” “Attente,” and ”La tombe edit à rose,” along with the anonymous “Dors mon enfant.” At the time he wrote these songs, Wagner had not yet composed his more famous and, perhaps, idiomatic music, such as the opera Tannhaüser, which serves as a point of comparison for some of these settings in the article by Michèle Isaac published with the liner notes. The first of Wagner’s songs, “Tou n’est qu’images fugitives” includes some motives that resemble the opening gesture of Tannhaüser’s “Song to the Evening Star,” while others bear some stylistic affinities without necessarily having a parallel in the finished works. The opening figure “Dors, mon enfant” suggests the “Spinning song” in the first act of Der fliegende Holländer, but the resemblance stops at the point.

While it is difficult not to hear some the echoes of later music, the songs are best considered on their own merits. The pieces are not as distinctive as Wagner’s later Wesendonck-Lieder, yet reveal a further aspect of the composer’s early efforts in writing for voice. If at times the music sounds, perhaps, stilted, it may be because of the constraints of texts by others. Only later, when Wagner composed his own librettos did he achieve a more natural-sounding and, at the same time, familiar, result.

While the songs by Wagner are at the core of this recording, the other pieces included in this recording are of interest for giving access to composers who were influenced by their older colleague. Those familiar with the music of the late nineteenth century sometimes encounter the name of Sylvain Dupuis (1856-1933), but his music is not familiar. Those interested in the Wagnerism that pervaded the arts in the generation after the eponym’s death can apprehend his influence in the five songs by Dupuis included in this recording. Likewise, the pieces by Emile Mathieu (1844-132) reflect a French translation of some of the Lieder styles of the early nineteenth century. As a practitioner of the Belgian melodies, Mathieu contributed some fine songs to the French literature. His individuality emerges in the songs included in this recording, and those interested in a composer like Fauré may appreciate the music by Mathieu.

With Biarent, some of the parallelisms that he used in the piano parts of the songs collected here evoke the music of Debussy. Yet the declamatory character of the vocal part in “Des Ballades au hameau” suggests some songs by Mussorgsky. Sylvain Dupuis’s songs, published between 1881 and 1892, are, perhaps, less prone to such comparisons. The rich textures of a song like “Mon coeur sera joyeux!” are redolent of some of the mid-nineteenth century, but could also be regarded as part of that evasive term “post-Romanticism.” In some ways Dupuis’s songs seem destined for orchestral accompaniments, even though none exist.

All in all, the music collected on this CD is bears attention for being unique – French Wagnerian song is, after all, something that one does not encounter every day. The baritone Patrick Delcour has a pleasant baritone voice that is suitable for the repertoire on this recording. In fact, the biographical notes included with the recording indicate that Delcour has performed a number of works from the same period, including other music by Mathieu. In some pieces, the range can be a bit demanding, and he handles the demands of those pieces well. Likewise, the pianist Diane Andersen is wonderfully detailed in her execution of the accompaniments, with a fine precision and exactitude.

Both performers demonstrate their immersion in the pieces, with comfortable exchanges apparent in those places where voice and piano must interact with the other. The tempos are quite effective for understanding the text. The performances themselves reflect care and attention to detail, with a nice balance between the voice and piano. Yet something seems to have occurred in the recording process to render a narrow, monochromatic sound. While the recording was made between 11 and 13 August 2004, it sounds as if it were a transfer from LP recordings. Sometimes the voice sounds muffled, as occurs near the end of the first piece, Mathieu’s “Le roi des Aulnes,” and a similar situation may be found at the beginning of the second, “Le fidèle Eckart” by the same composer. With the songs by Wagner, the sound is a bit better, but voice seems unusually close to the microphone. Unfortunately it is impossible to get around this weakness but, as with any recording, the ear eventually adjusts to the mode of presentation.

For Wagner completists, this recording will merit attention, since it stands alongside some of the recently released recordings of Wagner’s settings from Faust. Yet those interested in the music should not miss the opportunity to hear the influence Wagner had on other composers, particularly these Gallic ones, who capture in their own music some of the same kinds of moods that are associated with Wagner. As always, it is useful to associate sounds with some of the names that are more readily found on lists of composers than in actual performance, and it is for this reason that the recording bears attention.

James L. Zychowicz
Madison, Wisconsin

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