La Bonne Chanson

Author: 
Patrick O'Connor

La Bonne Chanson

  • (3) Poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé
  • Chanson perpétuelle
  • (3) Chants de Noël
  • (4) Poèmes hindous
  • (Une) Flûte invisible
  • Rapsodie nègre
  • (La) Bonne chanson

Although she has recorded Gluck’s Orphee (EMI, 2/90), Berlioz’s Damnation de Faust (Philips, 3/90 and DG – to be released) and Massenet’s Werther (Erato, A/97), French is not the language one might automatically associate with von Otter. She has one of the most beautiful voices of our time and is also one of the most imaginative, eclectic singers, so the different styles and moods of this trawl through the tributaries of the French repertory don’t pose her any vocal problems.
The programme rather accentuates the mood of dream-like, barely impressionistic music. Mallarme’s poems in the opening Ravel group in which the singer compares himself (they seem to be masculine in subject) to a “bewildered lapdog” and a “sylph of this cold vault” find von Otter employing a distant, almost instrumental manner. The obvious comparisons here are with the versions by Suzanne Danco (Decca, 7/55 – nla) and Dame Janet Baker – the first less mysterious, the second more sensual.
Chausson’s Chanson perpetuelle demands and gets a much more theatrical response; no one is likely to efface the memory of Dame Maggie Teyte in this large-scale song, von Otter’s version is done with elan. The three little Frank Martin carols are the rarities of the CD – they could be the deciding factor for those who may already possess other recordings of the other songs: though only miniatures they might put the disc on a few shopping-lists.
How many recordings of Delage’s Quatre poemes hindous does a chap need? After Baker, Upshaw and Lott there doesn’t really seem to be much more to be said about them. Von Otter sings these tastefully as well – for those who have not yet acquired the disc by Dame Felicity Lott which has other Delage settings as well as the Chausson, this recital may be a more alluring prospect, with greater variety. Saint-Saens’s enchanting Viens, une flute invisible is my own favourite item on the CD. His songs are gradually being rediscovered, after Francois Le Roux’s excellent selection last year. Von Otter is perhaps more at home where the French repertory is concerned with this earlier, more romantic manner. If this were one side of a 78, it would become a famous record. As it is the problem of the solo recital on CD is solved by the decision to include Poulenc’s mostly instrumental Rapsodie negre – this too was once a rarity, but again we’ve just heard it done by Le Roux and Pascal Roge.
As for La bonne chanson, in its version for quintet and piano, it too is something of a rarity. (Sarah Walker with the Nash Ensemble, and Francois Le Roux with Jeff Cohen and colleagues have also recorded this arrangement.) Faure himself thought that the addition of the extra instruments blunted its impact. What it avoids is the sense of sadness that infects some performances of this cycle – it is essentially a celebration of happiness.
In short, this is an attractive recital; if you want to sample it start with the Saint-Saens and then the Faure. I could find no reference in the accompanying booklet to say who sings the patois in the Poulenc – it certainly isn’t von Otter.
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