LALO Complete Songs
Édouard Lalo wrote some 23 songs between 1848 and 1887, a significant contribution to his smallish but invariably distinguished output. Very few have appeared on CD, however, so this fine complete set from Tassis Christoyannis and Jeff Cohen fills a major gap in Lalo’s discography. It allows us to assess and reassess the songs themselves, while the chronological presentation affords significant insights into the development of a composer of great originality, whose reputation still suffers from charges of idiosyncrasy.
His early songs, occupying the whole of the first disc and mostly designated ‘scènes’ or ‘romances’ rather than ‘mélodies’, are experimental by nature, grand in scale and occasionally discursive. ‘Adieu au désert’ and ‘Le novice’, portraits of a Muslim warrior and a renegade monk respectively, are essentially dramatic cantatas, combining recitative and arioso, not always ideally successfully. More impressive are the Six Romances populaires de Pierre-Jean Béranger of 1849, a lengthy (44 minutes) sequence of strophic ballads, some with accompaniments in variation form, to texts by the iconic poet of the 1830 revolution: their combination of social concern, angry wit and sentimentality reveals a fierce political conscience, the intensity of which was to wane as Lalo’s career progressed.
When we get to the 1856 Victor Hugo set that opens the second disc, however, a marked shift is discernible. There is a gravitation towards high-Romantic poetry. The tone varies and lightens, becoming intimate and sexual. Accompaniments become more transparent as Lalo turns towards shorter forms. His expressive range and subtlety deepened further after 1865, the year he married the Breton contralto Julie Bernier de Maligny, for whom many of his later songs were written. The wonderful de Musset settings of 1870 are exquisitely sensual, though politics resurfaces in the background of the central ‘Chanson de Barberine’, where the departure for the battlefield of the heroine’s soldier lover hints at French losses in the Franco-Prussian war. His last songs, written in the 1880s contemporaneously with Le roi d’Ys, share both its absolute conciseness and its debt to Breton folk music. It’s an impressive body of work, and there seems no reason, apart from ignorance, why the best of it is heard so infrequently.
The close recording occasionally catches a pulse in Christoyannis’s tone, and he struggles a bit with the immense vocal span of ‘Adieu au désert’. But he is an outstanding communicator here, admirably aware of textual and musical subtleties, without over-dramatising. The Hugo settings gleam with wit. The fragile eroticism of the de Musset set is beautifully done, and his tender way with the last songs is extraordinarily moving. Cohen is a fine accompanist, weighty yet detailed, formidably coming into his own in the Béranger Romances, where the complex piano-writing carries the primary emotional meaning. I would have preferred more detailed booklet-notes than those provided, but this is a superb issue nevertheless. It’s essential listening if you care for French song.