Songs on the Poems of Baudelaire
Building a programme of melodies to texts by Baudelaire is as difficult as compiling a recital of Shakespeare sonnets in settings worthy of them, and for much the same reasons. Baudelaire's poems have a complexity of thought and a richness of verbal music that defy the composer to add anything; it is not surprising that most of those who have dared to approach him—Berg (Der Wein), Taneyev, Casella, van Dieren, Sorabji, Lutyens are not French. Poulenc, who devoured Baudelaire's verse avidly as a young man, never set a word of him, nor did Ravel (a pity: he might have treated some of his exoticisms in a Sheherazade manner). Both Faure's and Debussy's settings come from relatively early in their careers, and they make an interesting contrast.
Faure is not quite comfortable with Baudelaire he tries his best with long and generous lines and with Schumannesque piano writing but finds himself most at home with a comparatively slight poem, Hymne, to which he gives a charmingly pretty lilt: these are nice songs, in short, but not the very best Faure. Debussy, on the other hand (recovering from a severe attack of Wagnerism) realizes immediately that Gallic understatement and elegance are the last thing these poems need, and lavishes upon them an almost decadent opulence. They are quite uncharacteristic Debussy, but with their florid tendrils of piano figuration, their rich sonority and intensity of utterance they outface Baudelaire quite sumptuously. They are big songs (literally: the longest of them lasts nearly eight minutes), and they respond very well to the almost operatic style of performance that Felicity Lott and Graham Johnson give them. That manner is no less appropriate to the familiar Duparc settings (you hear the advantages that a full voice can bring to this music in the fearless launching of the sestet of La vie anterieure), but although what one might call Lott's Strauss voice is the one most frequently heard here (she needs it for the Alpine vocal gradients of Chabrier's striking but hideously difficult
The recording was made on two separate dates and somebody forgot to ensure that the sound matched: in some songs the soprano is more recessed than in others, making her diction seem rather less clear than it evidently was. No complaints otherwise: the recital is as intelligently executed as it is cleverly planned.'