FAURÉ (The) Complete Songs, Vol 1
After Schubert and Schumann, now Fauré – Graham Johnson and Hyperion embark on another, somewhat shorter, song journey. This is the first of four projected CDs to cover all of Fauré’s mélodies. It has been attempted three times before, by Dalton Baldwin, with Gérard Souzay and Elly Ameling (EMI), then by Malcolm Martineau, with Sarah Walker and Tom Krause (CRD, 5/93; 8/93 – nla), most recently by Jeff Cohen, with François Le Roux and Béatrice Uria-Monzon (REM).
Few singers would choose to give over a whole evening to Fauré’s songs on the concert platform, and choosing a way of presenting them on disc obviously poses problems. The EMI set had all the songs in chronological order, the others chose poets or moods – Johnson and company have opted for songs about water to start with. This means a lot of dreaming and melancholy, whether in Théophile Gautier’s Chanson du pêcheur (‘Ma belle amie est morte’, also set by Berlioz), or Jean Richepin’s Au cimitière. The latter is given a most beautiful rendition by John Mark Ainsley, who otherwise only sings on two tracks, with Jennifer Smith in the sentimental Pleurs d’or, and the homage to Venice and its lovers in Marc Monnier’s Barcarolle.
Three cycles are the main items here. Felicity Lott sings the Cinq Mélodies de Venise – surprising that she has not recorded these before – including some of Fauré’s best-known songs, ‘Mandoline’, ‘En sourdine’ and ‘Green’. She brings a lifetime’s devotion to French song to bear on them. Her other contribution is the song that gives the disc its title, Au bord de l’eau, to a poem by Sully-Prudhomme. This is made to sound very sad; taken faster it can be quite merry. It is a celebration of love, as well as a meditation on the passing of time.
Stephen Varcoe is the other survivor of the original Songmakers Almanac here, and he sings Mirages, Fauré’s penultimate cycle, composed in 1919, and a great distance in feeling from those Venetian dreamers. As Graham Johnson writes in his (as always) fascinating notes, these poems by Renée de Brimont permitted Fauré ‘uneventful passion’. Christopher Maltman is the other featured singer, in five separate songs and L’horizon chimérique. All the performances are elegant and well-balanced, but one misses the extra slight note of acid that native French singers bring to Fauré’s songs. Patrick O’Connor
Has Fauré’s time finally come? Regaled with dubious compliments throughout his life, notably in his native France, Fauré has since been relegated to a lowly if distinguished place. True, his reticent nature made him ‘backward in coming forward’ (Graham Johnson) and even when his Romantic idealism was clouded by inner bleakness and despair (the neglect of his work, his mundane marriage and an encroaching hearing disorder), he was rarely provoked beyond a murmur of complaint.
Today, Fauré is seen in a different light and his unique voice – in both his early ardour and the spare, alternately troubled and serene utterances of his final years – is celebrated by Hyperion in ‘Au bord de l’eau’, the first in a four-volume set of the complete songs. Few such tributes have been presented with greater skill and affection. Proceeding chronologically within this watery theme, the songs are performed by seven singers who respond to the composer’s subtlety as to the manner born. Who but Felicity Lott could imbue the Cinq Mélodies de Venise with such radiance, and if Stephen Varcoe’s timbre in ‘Danseuse’ from Mirages evokes the incomparable Gerard Souzay, his singing is nonetheless hauntingly individual. Jennifer Smith and John Mark Ainsley come close in quality to Victoria de los Angeles and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in Pleurs d’or, and Christopher Maltman and Graham Johnson’s performance of Les berceaux captures unforgettably music where a simple melodic line floats above an under- tow, the harmonic equivalent of shot silk.
Hyperion’s sound is impeccable and in both his playing and accompanying essay, Graham Johnson penetrates to the heart of one of music’s most subtle and enigmatic geniuses.