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Recordings

Aparte AP110
13 Jun 2016

Lalo: Complete Songs

Edouard Lalo (1823-92) is best known today for his instrumental works: the Symphonie espagnole (which is, despite the title, a five-movement violin concerto), the Symphony in G Minor, and perhaps some movements from his ballet Namouna, a scintillating work that the young Debussy adored.

Lalo: Complete Songs

Tassis Christoyannis, baryton; Jeff Cohen, piano; Johannes Grosso, oboe hautbois

Aparte AP110 [2CDs]

$30.99  Click to buy

Music lovers in French-speaking lands might also mention Le roi d’Ys, a richly atmospheric opera that, despite being available on CD and DVD, is unknown to most music lovers (except for its overture and a delectable tenor aria: “Vainement, ma bien-aimée”). Musicologist Hugh Macdonald has recently published Lalo’s first opera, Fiesque, a work based on a play by Schiller and never performed in the composer’s lifetime. As interesting and as varied as Le roi d’Ys, Fiesque has received a recording (featuring Roberto Alagna) and has even been staged twice. Yet another Lalo opera, La Jacquerie (completed by Arthur Coquard after the composer’s death) was performed to much acclaim in the Auditorium of Radio-France; the work’s first recording, with the same performers, will be released in Fall 2016.

Here we have, on two CDs, the other major vocal genre in which Lalo was active: songs for voice and piano. The collection contains all thirty-two songs that Lalo approved for publication (though some ended up appearing posthumously). All but the earliest nine are now easily available from the music publisher Heugel, in a volume edited with scrupulous care by Joël-Marie Fauquet (1988). Fifteen can be consulted in facsimile in David Tunley’s essential Romantic French Song: 1830-1870 (Garland, 1995), vol. 3. Tunley’s volume includes six of the early nine songs, plus Lalo’s first published version of the Op. 17 songs. (Lalo later published a much-revised version.) Tunley’s volume also offers generally clear translations of song texts, plus suggestions to singers regarding French vowels.

For decades now, scholars have been telling the world about the wonders of the Lalo songs. Frits Noske, in his French Song from Berlioz to Duparc (Dover paperback), declared that the aforementioned Op. 17 songs—setting six poems by Victor Hugo—show Lalo to be “among the masters of the genre.” More generally, “Lalo’s songs are distinguished from those of his contemporaries principally by their profound sense of poetry…His pieces teem with ingenious harmonic and rhythmic inventions.” Lalo also “introduced humor and cheerfulness” into French art song.

These enthusiastic claims are well supported by the present recording, which gives evidence of a composer open to a wide range of influences—including Schubert, Schumann, and Gounod—yet always resulting in music that sounds confident and “right.” The big surprise is the first of the two CDs, which contains the nine early songs, published when Lalo was 25 and 26 years old. Six of them employ texts that the songwriter Pierre-Jean de Béranger originally wrote, decades earlier, to be sung to well-known tunes. In these Béranger texts, social observation and social criticism are conveyed with a mixture of sentimentality and biting irony. Lalo writes new music for the texts and sets them strophically—that is, with the same music used for each of the many strophes. (Often a song has six strophes, and one has seven!) As a result, some of these songs last ten minutes or more.

The remaining twenty-three songs (CD2) are based on poetic texts by a welcome array of poets: we encounter Gautier, Hugo, Lamartine, Musset, plus some lesser scribblers. Other composers—including Berlioz, Liszt, Bizet, Massenet, Saint-Saëns, Fauré, Duparc, Anton Rubinstein, and César Cui—had set or would set some of the same texts. (Rachmaninoff would set one of the Hugo poems, but in Russian translation.) Lalo’s renderings turn out to be remarkably different from theirs, yet just as apt. In a number of cases Lalo keeps the setting relatively short, with the result that the music mirrors the poem instead of overwhelming it (as Liszt, for example, sometimes comes close to doing). “Puisqu’ici-bas” echoes the poem’s alternation of long and short lines, producing unusual, yet satisfying, three-bar phrases (2+1). Many of the songs have an essential strophic underpinning, but later strophes often modulate to related keys and develop the material, thereby echoing the text’s increasing emotional complexity.

Sometimes Lalo even convinces us, through his music, that a rather conventional poem is a masterpiece of psychological insight. A particularly touching example is “Tristesse,” by Armand Silvestre. Some strikingly regret-filled lines: “We passed—so it seems to me—close to each other without seeing each other, . . . without knowing that our hearts beat together. . . . We would no doubt have suffered, but at least we would have loved!” The prelude in the piano—a yearning melody over slowly descending chords and a low tonic pedal—casts a sweet-sad mood that colors everything that follows. As Graham Johnson keenly observes, the song “shows the composer at his most simple and eloquent.”

Lalo responds with special vividness to texts that invoke a distinctive locale: for example, “Le novice” (about a passionate young man who, having joined a monastery, is now chafing under its constraints), “La fenaison” (about village life at harvest-time), “La Zuecca” (recalling the pleasures of Venice), and “Adieu au désert” (sung by a dark-skinned tribal chieftain who lives by an oasis in Arabia or Northern Africa and here exhorts his horse-riding troops: “Let us make war against the Christians!”). Lalo’s setting of Gautier’s “L’esclave” (The Harem Slave) is fully the equal of fine songs written to similar texts by other composers. I am thinking, notably, of the young Berlioz’s “La captive” (with cello obbligato, text by Hugo) and Félicien David’s setting of Gautier’s “Tristesse de l’odalisque.” “Le chant breton” (on a pseudo-folk text evoking rural Brittany) includes an important oboe part that evokes a shepherd’s simple pipe. The musical “shepherd” is here quasi-enacted, with enchanting naiveté, by Johannes Grosso, first oboist at the Frankfurt Opera.

Lalo’s piano parts are demanding, richly interesting in themselves, and responsive to details in the text (e.g., someone knocking at a door). The accompaniment to “L’aube naît” is redolent of Schumann at his best (e.g., “Mondnacht”). “Puisqu’ici-bas,” if stripped of its vocal part, could almost pass for a Mendelssohn-like “Venetian Gondola Song.” Yet that vocal line is no mere declamation laid on top, but rather shapely and expressive, despite—or because of—its three-bar phrases. In “Guitare,” the piano evokes Spain through strumming figures, and the vocal part gestures toward folk song—if not Spain in particular—by its pure diatonicism, its limited range of an octave, and its simple, balanced phrases.

Baritone Tassis Christoyannis performs major roles in opera houses across Europe (including Germont at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden). Throughout this recording he once again proves himself a major interpreter of song. (I loved his recent CD of eighteen songs—most of which had never been recorded before—by the aforementioned Félicien David. The voice is firmly supported—except at times in the lowest register—and remains vividly “present” when the singer moves into an intimate half-voice. In the six Béranger songs, Christoyannis makes each of the many strophes specific and fresh. Throughout the collection, he sounds—by turns—playful, pompous, bitter, yearning, pitiable, and much else. He even ends a drinking song (Béranger’s “Les petits coups”) with an engaging chuckle that seems perfectly in character, not in any way forced. His remarkable vocal and expressive resources help him put across several songs (e.g., “Marine” and “À celle qui part”) that—in the manner of an operatic scene or soliloquy—include passages of rather free (but sung, not spoken) recitation.

One minor quibble: Christoyannis’s French pronunciation is occasionally non-native. The z sound in “mes amours” becomes an s, and certain vowels are too open: the word “ou” (meaning “or”) can become a somewhat puzzling “oh” and the word “vive” sounds as if it is, ungrammatically, “vivez.” Still, one always senses that Christoyannis understands what he is singing. His way of caressing a phrase such as “mystérieuse messagère” (i.e., “mysterious messenger”—in “À une fleur,” to a text by Musset) conveys the poet’s image in memorable fashion.

Jeff Cohen gives alert and appropriate support through all the different moods of these songs. He is wonderfully fleet-fingered in the multiple twitterings of “La chanson de l’alouette” (Song of the Lark). I particularly enjoyed, in the early song “Le novice,” Lalo’s evocation of a choir of monks singing. The composer, imaginatively, places this chordal passage first in the piano’s ethereal upper register, then gradually brings it into darker, more solemn regions, integrating it into the song’s onward flow. (Unfortunately, in some songs, Cohen’s instrument seems a little distant from the microphone. When I turn up the volume to catch the harmonies and figurations, the singer’s voice becomes uncomfortably loud.)

The poems make for fascinating reading. In certain cases, Lalo has selected and rearranged stanzas from a longer poem to make an effective song text. The poet’s version can often be found online at lieder.net, along with several different translated versions. A poet’s indentation of shorter lines can be interesting, since it may have affected how the composer “heard”—and therefore set—the poem. For four of the songs, truly admirable texts and translations—properly indented—can be found in Graham Johnson and Richard Stokes’s widely hailed A French Song Companion (Oxford, paperback).

In the CD booklet, the poetic texts are printed flush-left. The translations (by Mark Wiggins) are largely adequate, but the attempt to hew closely to the poet’s word choice and laconic syntax may confuse some readers. A powerful phrase in Béranger’s “Le vieux vagabond”—“Vieux vagabond, je ne vous maudis pas”—does not mean, as the booklet has it, “Old vagabond, I will not curse you,” as if the character in the song were addressing an impoverished homeless man. Rather, the character is himself the “vieux vagabond,” and his word “vous”—in this case—is a plural “you,” referring to rich people and tradesmen who did little to help the man learn a trade earlier in life. He is thus declaring, with a combination of bitterness and dignity: “[I may be nothing but] an old beggar/homeless person, [yet] I will not curse you [all].” As for Musset’s witty and tightly constructed “Ballade à la lune,” the translation in Johnson/Stokes, or the one by Barbara Miller at lieder.net, can help correct some errors in Wiggins’s rendering. For example, it is not the “history of [the moon’s] dashing loves” that “will ever be made more attractive.” The poet’s point is, rather, that the stories or legends about the moon make “you” (the moon) lovelier in our collective mind. Wiggins has overlooked the crucial “t’”—i.e., “you.”

Great songs can support a wide range of vocal styles and interpretive approaches. Interested listeners will want to compare Christoyannis’s performances to previous ones that are either still commercially available or—if not—can often be found in major academic and public libraries or have been uploaded to YouTube. “Guitare” has been recorded on CDs by singers thin-toned (Marie Devellereau), medium-weight (Felicity Lott, Konstantin Wolff), and plush (Susan Graham). Bruno Laplante—a French-Canadian baritone who studied with the eminent Pierre Bernac—performs ten Lalo songs (and eight by Bizet) on an LP from 1983, with sincerity and elegant French pronunciation but also with a constant quick flutter in the tone that I find distracting. On a Rodolphe CD from 1987, renowned Polish opera star Teresa Zylis-Gara, with magnificent vocal command, offers all but one of the twenty-three mature songs (omitting the first setting of “Amis, vive l’orgie,” from Op. 17), plus two Béranger settings from the early years. (She sings two strophes—rather than all six—in each of the Béranger songs.) She also includes “Humoresque,” a fascinating number that is actually an excerpt from the opera Fiesque. In certain songs, Zylis-Gara chooses slow tempos, apparently to allow her sizable voice to bloom, and she adds numerous well-judged portamenti. Her interpretation of the texts is often somewhat generalized (M/J 1996).

Lalo’s complete songs were recorded once before (on the Passavant label, 2010), sung by veteran baritone François Le Roux. To judge by two Hugo songs that can be streamed at the label’s website, Le Roux’s voice was—by the time he made these recordings—no longer firm enough to convey all his intended artistry. On the plus side, he handles the texts with ease, and Christian Ivaldi’s brilliant and stylish pianism is captured in full detail by the microphone. (Ivaldi was just as wonderful on the Zylis-Gara CD, made over twenty years earlier.)

In short, despite the existence of some admirable prior recordings, anyone wanting to discover a new side of Edouard Lalo—and a treasure trove of great French songs—would do best to start with Christoyannis and Cohen’s marvelous new 2-CD set.

Ralph P. Locke


Ralph P. Locke is Professor Emeritus of Musicology at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. He wrote about French symphonies, including Lalo’s, in D. Kern Holoman, ed., The Nineteenth-Century Symphony (Schirmer Books, 1996). We thank the American Record Guide, where his review of the Lalo songs first appeared, for kindly permitting us to publish the present, expanded version.

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