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Elder conducts Lohengrin

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Premiere Recording: Mayr’s Telemaco nell’isola di Calipso (1797)

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A Verlaine Songbook
24 Sep 2017

A Verlaine Songbook

Back in the LP days, if a singer wanted to show some sophistication, s/he sometimes put out an album of songs by famous composers set to the poems of one poet: for example, Phyllis Curtin’s much-admired 1964 disc of Debussy and Fauré songs to poems by Verlaine, with pianist Ryan Edwards (available now as a CD from VAI).

A Verlaine Songbook

Carolyn Sampson, soprano; Joseph Middleton, piano.

BIS-2233 [SACD]

$14.99  Click to buy

Today, singers and their pianists are often more willing also to explore repertory by composers who are much less well known. Furthermore, a CD can carry much more music than the typical LP. Carolyn Sampson—an established light soprano—here offers an entire, well-stocked disc of Verlaine settings by no fewer than ten composers: the inevitable (but always welcome!) Debussy and Fauré, but also Saint-Saëns, Chausson, Ravel, Reynaldo Hahn, Charles Bordes, Déodat de Séverac, Joseph Szulc, and Régine Wieniawski Poldowski (daughter of the famous violinist).

This does not produce a scattershot effect because several cycles or sets are recorded entire (Debussy’s Fêtes galantes, series 1, and Ariettes oubliées; and Fauré’s La bonne chanson). Also, the songs of Poldowski are grouped together, as are those of Hahn. The single songs by Ravel, Szulc, et al., thus come as refreshment after a group of tracks by one composer.

Another element of coherence: a number of the songs use the same text as some other song on the disc. There is much fascination in observing how Saint-Saëns, for example, fills “C’est l’extase langoureuse” with a lively accompaniment emphasizing ecstasy whereas Debussy’s setting emphasizes languor. And, for extra fun, certain images recur from poem to poem, in different contexts: moonlight, nightingale, musical note-names (“do-mi-sol”), and so on.

Roger Nichols’s booklet-essay gives much insight into the different composers’ approaches to each poem. The translations, by William Jewson, of the often-laconic song texts are as clear as can be without adding many words of explanation.

People who already know the Debussy and Fauré songs recorded here may well be delighted, as I was, to discover how responsive the other composers were to this poet’s evocative verses. Hahn, Poldowski, Séverac, and Szulc produce what are, in many ways, quite conservative settings. (Szulc would go on to write musical comedies.) But conservative need not mean routine. Szulc’s setting of “Clair de lune” captures the dreamy mood of the text beautifully, as does Poldowski’s somewhat Schumannesque “En sourdine” (“Calmes dans le demi-jour”). Poldowski’s “Mandoline” (“Les donneurs de sérénades”) evokes the atmosphere of commedia dell’arte no less effectively than do the famous settings by Fauré and Debussy. And there are poetically apt echoes of church style in a song by Bordes and the closing number of the disc, by Séverac. As for the master composers, I will confine myself here to mentioning the sole Ravel song: “Sur l’herbe,” which I had never encountered before, is a wonderful “slice of life” song in his magical pseudo-Spanish style.

This was my first time hearing Sampson. She is a light, flexible soprano, a bit like Sylvia McNair or Kathleen Battle. She commands a wide range of techniques, from straight tone to rich vibrato, and from super-legato singing and controlled portamento to a semi-spoken lightness. She can file her voice down to a slender but well-supported thread. Some of the singing is among the most beautiful that my ears have ever been privileged to receive: for example, in Chausson’s “Apaisement” (“La lune blanche”)—which is one of several tracks from the CD that can be heard on YouTube —and Hahn’s “L’heure exquise” (“Votre âme est un paysage choisi”).

Sampson receives superb support from Joseph Middleton, who is director of the Leeds Lieder Festival and a professor at the Royal Academy of Music. I was often enchanted by the ways in which the pianist responds to the changing imagery in the texts and to shifts in harmony and figuration.

The same performers’ previous CD for BIS, Fleurs (likewise including some songs by “lesser” composers), was rapturously received by record critics (including Erin Heisel, in American Record Guide, September/October 2015). I foresee a similarly positive response to this marvelously well thought-out CD, which nicely reminds us that many lesser-known composers from the past have written at least a few pieces that can gratify performers and listeners alike today.

Warning: at first I listened to some tracks from this Verlaine disc on the CD player in my car. Sampson's loud high notes often came across as harsh; the echo, annoying. I wonder if this was a side-product of it being a compatible SACD disc. (This is the first SACD disc I have tried listening to.) At home, on good equipment, the whole disc is as exquisite as (Verlaine might say) the glow of moonlight on russet grass.

Ralph P. Locke

The above review is a lightly revised version of one that first appeared in American Record Guide and appears here by kind permission.

Ralph P. Locke is emeritus professor of musicology at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. Six of his articles have won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing about music. His most recent two books are Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections and Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart (both Cambridge University Press). The first is now available in paperback, and the second soon will be (and is also available as an e-book).


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