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Recordings

Green: Mélodies françaises sur des poèmes de Verlaine
16 Apr 2015

Green: Mélodies françaises sur des poèmes de Verlaine

Philippe Jaroussky lends poetry and poise to the sounds of nineteenth- and twentieth-century France

Green: Mélodies françaises sur des poèmes de Verlaine

Philippe Jaroussky, countertenor; Jerome Ducros, piano.

Erato 2564616693 [2CDs]

$17.99  Click to buy

“Et leur chanson se mêle au clair de lune.” Coutertenor Philippe Jaroussky sings these words, which translate to “and their song mingles with the moonlight,” no fewer than three times on his new recording, Green: Mélodies françaises sur des poèmes de Verlaine. The strongest aspect of the ambitious and rewarding CD is its offering of multiple composers’ interpretations of the symbolist poetry of Paul Verlaine, such as his 1869 Clair de lune. Jaroussky sings versions of this song by Claude Debussy, Gabriel Fauré, and Jozef Zygmunt Szulc, all three of which feature vocal and instrumental melodies wending around each other, worrying yet hopeful, and evoking the “birds dreaming in the trees” and the “fountains sobbing with ecstasy.” The Debussy version, transcribed for the Quatour Ebène by Jérôme Ducros, features a cello swirling around and under the piano and voice. Debussy set several Verlaine poems to music, beginning at age 19, and his symbolist approach is here made palpable as Jaroussky’s plush vowels ebb and flow like the moonlight’s reflection in receding waves and ripples of water. All three works were composed around the turn of the twentieth century, and are set to the same three stanzas of poetry, yet Jaroussky brings out the three contrasting compositional interpretations with poise.

These differing versions of Clair de lune are only three of the 43 songs on Jaroussky’s recent recording, the first since his 2009 Opium, which also tackled the broad range in French song, and which also co-starred Ducros as his tireless pianist-accompanist. These mélodies françaises are not meant for countertenor, but Jaroussky states that “this repertoire has always been a secret passion of mine” and wonders, “why not venture into other musical worlds if we feel they are suited to our voices?” He carefully selected a wide range of examples, including not just multiple musicalizations of the same texts and imagery (as with Clair de lune), but also varying genres and even eras, with the composers’ death dates ranging from 1894 (Emmanual Chabrier) to 2001 (Charles Trenet). The overwhelming number of songs at first seems to be arranged in a haphazard order before one realizes that Jaroussky is simply giving us the fullest and richest portrait of Verlaine’s poetry. Despite sharing similar literary inclinations, the composers’ soundscapes range from the romantic to the modernistic to the chanson -esque, and the recording jumps along in an unpredictable sequence, from the melancholy to the jolly to the impressionistic. Jaroussky and Ducros, occasionally joined by the Quatour Ebène as well, prove skillful in navigating the range in sounds, though the numerous (nine of the 43) songs by Debussy are the most vivid, and vividly-conveyed.

Debussy, the symbolist composer who was so drawn to Verlaine from such a young age, also composed music for Green, the title song of the recording and another poem weighing heavy with symbolism, as in lines like “the morning wind freezes on my forehead”. Caplet, mostly known now as an orchestrator of Debussy, filled his own setting of Green with staggered, staggering melodies and a disjointed musing between the piano and voice. All three—Debussy’s and Caplet’s as well as Fauré’s version—ripple throughout with widening, broadening strokes of sound and color. Despite being the title song, however, Green is not the most frequently-interpreted: La lune blanche andIl pleure dans mon coeur are represented no fewer than four times each on Jaroussky’s recording. Charles Koechlin’s rendition of Il pleure dans mon coeur skates the edge of melodrama, with curious chords popping in and preventing excessive trudgery, while Florent Schmitt’s Il pleure dans mon coeur is a bit simpler and more consoling. Yet again, though, the Debussy and Fauré versions are truly vivid and the most expertly-delivered by Jaroussky and Ducros. The melancholy mood is felt rather than told, with the piano notes dissolving into tears in the rippling symbolism of Debussy’s version, and the piano notes descending to a final chord of discontented sleep in Fauré’s.

The chansons offer a breath of fresh air from these distressing examples or the more romantic sounds of composers like Poldowski and Massenet. Slightly more upbeat songs like Charles Trenet’s Verlaine (Chanson d’automne) and Georges Brassens’s Colombine provide a glimpse of an entirely different genre of mélodies françaises. Trenet’s Verlaine, in contrast with Debussy’s symbolist Verlaine who swirls with colors and emotions, is a real treat. Jaroussky’s voice melts over the dancing strings and piano like chocolate sauce over a sundae, with the staccato piano note at the end as the cherry on top. Other songs from later composers, like the two interpretations of Un grand sommeil noir—one by Arthur Honegger, the other by Edgard Varèse—contribute their own unique arrangement of vowels, colors, and accompaniments, such as the spidery piano part climbing and limping its way through Honegger’s Un grand sommeil noir. With such breadth in theme and mood, the recording is clearly a labor of love, and Jaroussky and Ducros bring sensitivity to each track. Just as each of the composers crafted their own shade of Green, so the countertenor here has created an entirely new take on the poetry of Verlaine, and one that leaves a distinct impression upon each listening.

Rebecca S. Lentjes

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