DEBUSSY; FAURÉ Fêtes Galantes
The Norwegian mezzo Bettina Smith collaborates here with her compatriot, pianist Einar Røttingen, on a fine if shortish programme of French song-cycles in which ‘jouisssance turns to tristesse’, as the booklet-notes inform us. Debussy’s Trois Chansons de Bilitis and Fauré’s La chanson d’Ève are recorded together for the first time since Dawn Upshaw’s ‘Voices of Light’ and they make a striking pairing, with Bilitis’s naive sexuality nicely contrasted with Ève’s gathering awareness that God’s Eden ambiguously encompasses desire, danger and intimations of mortality. The two cycles are separated by the erotic wit of Fauré’s Venetian songs, the disillusionment of Debussy’s second Fêtes galantes set and the cautious rapture of his three Mallarmé settings.
The disc is, however, uneven. Smith’s darkish mezzo reveals occasional constriction at the top when singing softly. Everything is very reined in, with dynamics carefully shaded. Yet, as Véronique Gens’s very differently programmed ‘Néère’ (Alpha, 1/16) admirably proved, French song need not always be about restraint, and there are moments when you wish Smith would sometimes let the voice out more and adopt a broader interpretative spectrum. The richness of the sound suits Ève but makes Bilitis too overtly knowing – and Upshaw more successfully, and subtly, conveys the half-voiced emotions of both cycles.
Cinq Mélodies de Venise, meanwhile, lies high and occasionally lacks charm. But the Mallarmé songs sound languidly voluptuous, and Set 2 of Fêtes galantes, with its regretful, bitter colloquies, is delivered with an insistent intensity that makes it utterly engaging. Røttingen, meanwhile, provides more consistent pleasures with playing of beguiling elegance and beauty throughout.