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L’invitation au voyage: Mélodies from La belle époque
11 Apr 2007

L’invitation au voyage: Mélodies from La belle époque

“Linvitation au voyage” is an appropriate title for this collection of French song, which makes available a number of fine performances of both familiar and rare works.

L’invitation au voyage: Mélodies from La belle époque

John Mark Ainsley, tenor. Graham Johnson, piano

Hyperion CDA67523 [CD]

$18.99  Click to buy

Recorded on 2 to 4 June 2004, this collection of French mélodies from the end of the nineteenth century is a fine addition to Hyperion’s French Song Edition. John Mark Ainsley and Graham Johnson are well suited to the repertoire presented here, and this particular selection of pieces plays off a theme that was popular at the time, the prospect of journeying elsewhere. The responses in song are varied, and include a number of settings of the eponymous verse by Baudelaire that inspired a number of composers to embark on their own settings of his text. This is, in a sense, the French Belle Époque equivalent of the German Romantic “Kennst du das Land?” that intrigued generations of composers to fashion their own musical expressions of this well-known verse.

While Duparc’s setting of “L’Invitation au voyage” is probably the most famous, the others presented here merit attention for the nuances they bring to the poem. The one by Jules Cressonnois that opens the recording is engaging because of the combination of dramatic lines with more lyric ones, suggesting the tension present in voyaging away form the familiar. Other settings of the same text are included here, namely those by Benjamin Godard, Paul and Lucien Hillemacher and, naturally, Henri Duparc, and each presents an individual interpretation of the text. If a voyage entails a return, though, the placement of Duparc’s familiar “L’invitation au voyage” at the end provides a musical anchor in having a familiar mélodie at the conclusion of a set of otherwise unfamiliar, yet equally engaging music.

Beyond the composers listed above, there are songs by Léo Delibes, Charles Lecocq, Émile Pesard, Paul Puget, and Émile Paladilhe, and the poets outside of Baudelaire include Émile Augier, Alfred de Musset, Armand Silvestre, Jean de La Fontaine, Théophile Gautier, Victor Hugo, Sully Prodhomme, Pierre Corneille, Jean Aicard, and Jean Lahor. Of the familiar figures like Corneille, Hugo, and Musset, their names may not y draw associations with vocal music as readily as they do other genres. Yet their poetry inspired composers of this generation, and the music retains a freshness that resembles some of the art and architecture of the period in which it was written.

“Bonjour, Suzon” by Delibes is a case in point, with its extroverted address to Suzon — Suzanne — who remains absent to the traveler who is addressing her in the song. In the three strophes of unrequited entreaty, the repeated greeting of “bonjourn” becomes at the end “adieu” as the speaker makes in case in repeated efforts to speak to her. His voyages are met with a different situation at home, but the music suggests that it is not entirely tragic. It is hardly a sentimental piece, but the song that follows, “Regrets” by the same composer offers such poignancy. Here the accompaniment complements the vocal line by reinforcing the implied mood with some finely place chromatic inflections.

A similarly notable accompaniment occurs in “Guitare,” Godard’s setting of a poem by Hugo, and a charming piece. While the harmonic and melodic idiom is conservative, the song is crafted artfully to suit a gifted singer with the sense of nuance that Ainsley brings to this and other pieces in the collection. It is, perhaps, more rhythmically inventive than some of the other songs on this recording. While the rhythmic play is unmistakably intended to suggest the guitar, the syncopations play against the more regular accents in the text. A popular text at the time, the simply stated text implies a dramatic moment that attracted other composers to this poem, like Puget. In fact, the latter setting differs dramatically from Godard’s in its elegiac character and fervent tone.

Some of the pieces are simply exuberant, as with Lecocq’s “La cigale et la fourmi,” an encapsulation in verse of the story about the grasshopper and the ant. It is, as the comments in the accompanying booklet, a sophisticated piece that takes inspiration from the fables of La Fontaine, as “La chauve-souris et les deux belettes” (“The bat the two weasels”) that follows it in the recording and suggests the range of topics — and literature — that could be encompassed in this repertoire and which inspired composers’ musical imaginations.

This is a fine collection of French song from the Belle Époque, and those unfamiliar with the range of composers who worked at the time will find a solid introduction in this recording. The notes that accompany the recording are intelligent and perceptive and point to the deep know of the music that Graham Johnson has already shown in the material he has contributed to other Hyperion recordings. His accompanying is masterful, with thoughtful phrasing and careful dynamics. His interpretations remain solid and convincing. Moreover, John Mark Ainsley is in his element in these songs, and he brings to the repertoire a vibrant deliver that demonstrates his own immersion in the repertoire. Those who know his voice from other Hyperion collections have the privilege of hearing an entire album by this accomplished tenor. His approach is always well thought, with clear diction and apt expression. Ainsley and Graham Johnson have made a fine contribution to the discography of French song with this collection of melodies from a fascinating period in French music.

James Zychowicz

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