Anne Sofie von Otter: Douce France
Like Edith Piaf, whose memory hovers so palpably over popular song in France, Anne Sofie von Otter cannot have many regrets. During a career that has spanned more than 30 years she has crossed many musical boundaries, trying her hand with uncommon success at everything from Monteverdi to Weill, Elvis Costello to Abba. On this two-CD set she returns to the French repertoire from two angles: on the first disc she is in her familiar guise as a classical recitalist singing an enterprising programme of mélodies, while on the second she steps out as a highly skilled purveyor of the popular French chanson.</p>
<p>All listeners, whichever direction they are coming from, should expect a voyage of discovery. The mélodies disc opens with a ravishingly hushed performance of Hahn’s ‘L’heure exquise’, arguably the best-known song here. After that, there are rarities by Saint-Saëns, Ravel and the long-neglected Charles Martin Loeffler (especially his rapturous ‘La cloche fêlée’ with viola solo), before von Otter settles down to an intimate and quite sultry performance of Debussy’s <i>Trois Chansons de Bilitis</i>, accompanied with picturesque detail by Bengt Forsberg. The only drawback is that we are often aware of the singer struggling to hold at bay years of vocal wear and tear (it breaks through now and again, notably in Saint-Saëns’s ‘Vogue, vogue la galère’ and the Loeffler).</p>
<p>Disc 2 switches to a front-row seat at the cabaret, lights turned down low, the air heavy with the smoke of Gauloises. Close-miked now, von Otter ranges across the post-war years of the French chanson from a bouncy version of Charles Trenet’s ‘Boum!’ and the dreamy ‘La vie en rose’, a Piaf standard, to further rarities. Instrumental accompaniments are nicely varied, from accordion alone (Francis Lemarque’s ‘A Paris’) to small jazz ensemble (Michel Legrand’s ‘Chanson des jumelles’). Only a singer with von Otter’s near-native grasp of the French language and style could bring this off. She does not sing ‘Je ne regrette rien’ – ‘you can’t get anywhere near Piaf,’ she has said – but the sentiment seems apt enough. Against the odds, this two-CD set is a double pleasure.