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L'Heure Exquise
20 Apr 2006

“l’heure exquise”

After happily scanning the rarity-filled repertoire on this disc, and considering the unusual program order, with sets of songs by Enescu, Chausson, and Debussy alternating with sets by saloniste Reynaldo Hahn, I visualize this recital as an exquisite hour in Hahn’s salon, with three guest composers present, exchanging ideas with their host.

“l’heure exquise”

Marie-Nicole Lemieux, contralto, Daniel Blumenthal, piano

Naïve Classics V5022 [CD]

$15.99  Click to buy

Hahn, perhaps a lesser musical genius, but ever sensitive and courteous to his guests, sees to it that each one’s contribution is noted and echoed in his own offerings.

The first group, Sept Chansons de Clément Marot, by the Romanian-born George Enescu, sets a tone of wit and tenderness, evoking the sixteenth-century world of the poet with occasional trills and rolled chords, yet never surrendering its own style. Each song evokes a moment of wit or of sentiment, describing gifts between lovers, chastising damoyselles who are too lazy to write to their friends, or abruptly changing the subject from love to praise for the pruning-knife and its contribution to vine-growing, and hence to wine-fueled partying. Not heavy thoughts, by any means, but well suited to the intimacy of the gathering, and especially welcome by virtue of the fact that these songs are neither heard nor recorded as often as they deserve to be.

Our host responds with several of his best-known mélodies, all settings of poems by Paul Verlaine, who had heard them performed in 1893 at just such a salon, and is reported to have wept upon hearing them. While the poet’s words are more sensuous and emotional than Marot’s, Hahn’s music evokes these qualities without straying from boundaries of taste and scale appropriate to the salon. After the wistful “D’une prison” and the tender “L’heure exquise,” Enescu’s look at the past is echoed in Hahn’s lively “Fêtes Galantes,” setting Verlaine’s gently ironic poem peopled by the figures of Watteau’s paintings.

The next guest, Ernest Chausson, who has spent some time at Bayreuth, introduces a philosophical element with some of his less-frequently heard settings of Verlaine and Charles Baudelaire, opening the emotional and sonic landscape with their Wagner-influenced harmonies. One of these songs, “Apaisement,” sets the same deeply contented text as Hahn’s “L’heure exquise”, but other songs present allegories of the Poet as a soaring albatross caught and forced to walk clumsily on earth, and of Misfortune as a knight whose lance destroys the poet’s old heart but gives rise to a new, more heroic one. The set closes with “La chanson bien douce”, which praises the discreet, delicate voice that veils its own sadness and seeks to make other souls less sorrowful. Through this delicacy and discretion the philosophic composer finds his way back to the polite world of the salon.

This testament to kindness from the more sérieux composer, emboldens Hahn to return with his own “Offrande”, another salon-scaled Verlaine setting offering gifts and the poet’s heart, with the request that the recipient not destroy them. It is interesting to compare the opening measures of “Offrande” with those of Chausson’s “Apaisement”, as both create their moods using repeated chords of half notes. Hahn’s more open chords in a rising pattern plead gently; Chausson’s more chromatic chords in a downward pattern intimately invite. In his previous set Hahn had evoked the past through Verlaine’s ironic text; in this set’s next song he reaches back textually and musically toward the time of Marot by setting a text by seventeenth-century poet Théophile de Viau over a chaconne-like ground in the delightful “À Chloris.” Hahn’s set concludes with “Five Little Songs”, to texts from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Child’s Garden of Verses. Lemieux chooses to sing them in English, although they were published with singable French translations. I enjoyed hearing these songs, from the lovely melody in “My ship and I” to the accompaniments evocative of the swinging motion in “The Swing,” the galloping horse in “Windy Nights,” and the sense of dazzling celestial movement in “The Stars”. The set closes with a straightforward song expressing the child’s happy sense of accomplishment at having spent an entire day being good.

This is a bit too much for the remaining guest, Claude Debussy, who returns to the poetry of Verlaine with his masterly set of Fêtes Galantes II. Listening to these dreamy but disillusioned texts declaimed in expert settings over reinforcing impressionistic accompaniments, we can visualize the good little boy growing into one of the voyeurs in “Les ingénues,” a “melancholy pilgrim” resting to tambourine music under the sardonic eye of “Le faune,” or, worst of all, one of the ghosts endlessly strolling the icy landscape trying to remember or forget lost passion in “Colloque sentimental.”

But our host will not leave us encumbered by this dark vision of life and afterlife. The program closes with two settings of Victor Hugo separated by one of the composer’s friend Alphonse Daudet. The Daudet setting “Trois jours de vendange”, acknowledges mortality as the verses progress. In the first, lively music depicts a robustly sensuous young girl; funereal chords at the end of the final verse underscore the fate of the vine that had “too many grapes”. However, the other two songs stick a Romantic thumb in death’s eye. In “Puisque j’ai mis ma lèvre” the poet proclaims that love has given his soul the power to withstand the devastation of time. The magnificent final song, “Quand la nuit n’est pas étoilée,” equates the image of a totally dark night with that of an eternity whose mystery can be fathomed by “your forsaken heart.” This is a bold challenge, but Hahn’s setting, which transcends the salon-appropriate scale of most of his songs, is just grand enough to make it believable, the postlude carrying on the brave spirit of the text until it pauses for one shivering chord before settling into its final cadence.

I have said little about the performers so far, because, even if they were much less accomplished than they are, the program would still be well worth hearing. Marie-Nicole Lemieux’s contralto is clear and warm, with an appropriate emotional connection to the varied tones and styles of the songs. Pianist Daniel Blumenthal brings clarity and sonority to the richly evocative accompaniments. The result will be consistently aesthetically pleasing and moving to most listeners, although some purists may be put off by Lemieux’s device of withdrawing support slightly during phrases to underscore the emotional atmosphere (I’ve heard Cecilia Bartoli do the same kind of thing). Since Lemieux’s voice is so warm, this technique reinforces the sense of the salon’s intimacy, but does not noticeably alter the sound into pop territory. Nevertheless, when I compared her performance of Chausson’s “La chanson bien douce” with that of another contralto, Natalie Stutzmann, the latter gave an effective performance with a much more consistently pointed sound. (But it should be noted that, on a recording given over entirely to the mélodies of Chausson, this is the only one of Lemieux’s Chausson selections to appear.)

At the very fine detail level, I was so taken with “Quand la nuit n’est pas étoilée” that I took a look at it myself and discovered that Hahn wrote in some rather unusual dynamics, most notably a diminuendo over the climactic phrase “où sont les anges”. Musical instinct would say to build the sound still further instead, which is what Lemieux does. Hahn’s dynamic would certainly reinforce the sense of receding mystery of the dark void, but I couldn’t help wondering whether it is even humanly possible to sing it the way he wrote it. So I compared Susan Graham’s performance on her recent Hahn recital disc, and she does come closer to Hahn’s dynamic, perhaps because she is using a purer operatic technique that allows for more controlled piano sounds in the higher registers. Listeners who prefer this kind of sound and are primarily interested in the Hahn songs may like Graham’s performance of them better.

But the real strength of this disc is in the variety of compositional styles tied together by similar textual themes, and in the fact that it contains performances of songs that are rare or nonexistent elsewhere on recording. The fact that the performances are as fine and rewarding to hear as they are makes the disc that much more special. The stylishly produced booklet contains notes, texts and translations in English and French. Audio samples and additional information are available on the web here.

Barbara Miller

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