Saint-Saëns Songs

Author: 
Patrick O'Connor
Saint-Saëns's mélodiesSaint-Saëns's mélodies

SAINT-SAËNS Songs

  • Chanson (Nouvelle chanson sur un vieil air)
  • Guitare
  • Rêverie
  • (L')Attente
  • (Le) Chant de ceux qui s'en vont sur la mer
  • (Le) pas d'armes du Roi Jean
  • (La) Coccinelle
  • A quoi bon entendre
  • Si vous n'avez rien à me dire
  • Dans ton coeur
  • Danse macabre
  • Mélodies persanes, La brise
  • Mélodies persanes, Sabre en main
  • Mélodies persanes, Au cimetière
  • Mélodies persanes, Tournoiement
  • Marquise, vous souvenez-vous?
  • (La) Cigal et la fourmi
  • Chanson à boire du vieux temps
  • Nocturne
  • Violons dans le soir
  • Guitares et mandolines
  • (Une) Flûte invisible
  • Suzette et Suzon
  • Aimons-nous
  • (3) Vieilles chansons, No. 1, Temps nouveau (Wds. d'Orléans)
  • (Le) Vent dans la plaine
  • (5) Poèmes de Ronsard, No. 4, Grasselette et Maigrelette

This is the most resounding blow yet to be struck for the melodies of Saint-Saens. Though there have been two other CDs devoted to Saint-Saens the song-composer (by John Aler on Newport Classic and Anne-Marie Rodde on Etcetera), Francois Le Roux with his incisive diction and ability to characterize each song, is a real champion for the man, once so successful, who became, as Graham Johnson puts it in the booklet, “a footnote” rather than a chapter in the history of French music.
The booklet cover reproduces A l’ombre des bousouets chante un jeune poete, the work of Meissonier, a celebrated academic painter of the chocolate-box school. It announces the world one is entering with these songs: dreamy, romantic, melancholy, sometimes fiercely patriotic, but aimed at that staunchly conservative musical public who knew what they liked.
Many of the poems that Saint-Saens set were used by other composers, for instance Dans ton coeur, which became Duparc’s Chanson triste, by “Jean Lahor” (Henri Cazalis), Hugo’s La Coccinelle, also set by Bizet, in the same year, 1868 (and memorably recorded by Cecilia Bartoli last year on Decca, 12/96). Undoubtedly Saint-Saens’s most famous song is Danse macabre, words also by Lahor (“Zig et zig et zig, la mort cri en cadence”) which used to be a favourite with the unforgettable Cathy Berberian, though of course it’s much better known in its instrumental version. Johnson and Le Roux make it the centre of their programme, coming just before four of the Melodies persanes.
Graham Johnson playfully suggests what a fortune Saint-Saens might have made if he had survived long enough to write for the movies a bit more (he composed the music for one of the first big French silent films to have a special score – L’Assassinat du Duc de Guise in 1908). The first song of the Melodies persanes, “La brise”, is full of eastern promise, the second, “Sabre en main” a rollicking bit of toy-soldier galloping away, but just as one is beginning to think that Johnson is shooting himself in the foot by being so ironic about the music they’re performing comes the hauntingly beautiful fifth song, “Au cimetiere”, with its quietly rippling accompaniment and the languorous poem about the lovers sitting on a marble tomb and picking the flowers. Le Roux sings this with controlled, quiet intensity. The succeeding opium dream, “Tournoiement” is one of Saint-Saens’s most original songs, and one of the very few that one can compare with a performance from the past. David Devries recorded this and “Au cimetiere” in the 1920s (Odeon) with orchestral accompaniment. Devries employs a strange, rapid vibrato to suggest the torments of the drugged sleep; Le Roux is much more restrained.
Johnson makes the point that it is of little importance from which part of the composer’s life the songs come, he embodies that totally French nineteenth-century style, sometimes anticipating Hahn and Massenet, sometimes harking back to Boieldieu. If a setting of La Fontaine’s fable about the cicada and the ant is pure salon charm, then the final “Grasselette et Maigrelette” Ronsard chanson, composed when Saint-Saens was 85 in 1920, is a vivacious cafe-concert-style evocation of old Paris.
An hour-and-a-quarter of Saint-Saens’s songs may prove too much; in these days of one-composer discs it is essential to remember that these songs weren’t designed to be sung in the modern Liederabend way. On the concert platform Francois Le Roux is one of the most charismatic performers of our time, his flashing eyes and total involvement making each recital memorable. Though he has recorded a wide range of music, from Couperin to Birtwistle, he has not always made the impact one would expect on disc, but this is certainly one of the best things he has done so far. A double welcome, for performers and rare repertory.'

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