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Mélodies françaises
Nathalie Stutzmann (contralto), Inger Södergren (piano: Chausson, Poulenc), Catherine Collard (piano: all other items)
Recorded 1995 (Chausson), 1998 (Poulenc), 1992 (all other items)
BMG/RCA RED SEAL 74321 987202 [2 CDs 79:18 + 77:48]

Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924)

Le papillon et la fleur op.1/1, Mai op.1/2, Chanson du pêcheur op.4/1, Lydia op.4/2, Rêve d’amour op.5/2, Tristesse op.6/2, Après un rêve op.7/1, Au bord de l’eau op.8/1, Nell op.18/1, Automne op.18/3, Poème d’un jour op.21 (1. Rencontre, 2. Toujours, 3. Adieu), Les berceaux op.23/1, Notre amour op.23/2, Le secret op.23/3, Aurore op.39/1, Les roses d’Ispahan op.39/4, Nocturne op.43/2, Clair de lune op.46/2, Spleen op.51/3, 5 mélodies ‘de Venise’ op.58 (1. Mandoline, 2. En sourdine, 3. Green, 4. A Clymène, 5. C’est l’extase), Prison op.83/1
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)

Histoires naturelles (1. Le paon, 2. Le grillon, 3. Le cygne, 4. Le martin-pêcheur, 5. La pintade)
Ernest CHAUSSON (1855-1899)

La caravane op.14, Le temps des lilas op.19, Les heures op.27/1, La chanson perpétuelle op.37
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)

Ariettes oubliées (1. C’est l’extase, 2. Il pleure dans mon cœur, 3. L’ombres des arbres, 4. Chevaux de bois, 9. Green, 10. Spleen), 5 Poèmes de Baudelaire (1. Le balcon, 2. Harmonie du soir, 3. Le jet d’eau, 4. Recueillement, 5. La mort des amants), Chansons de Bilitis (1. La flûte de Pan, 2. La chevelure, 3. Le tombeau des Naïades)
Francis POULENC (1899-1963)

Montparnasse, C

Nathalie Stutzmann is the possessor of something rather rare these days when contralto parts, willy-nilly, usually end up being taken by mezzo-sopranos; a rich, and, in my subjective opinion, wonderfully beautiful contralto voice, completely even from its lowest notes up to a resounding F sharp. She is also capable of floating her higher notes in delicate half-tones and she gives no audible sign of her passage to the chest register.

It has been suggested in some quarters that, beyond these undeniable virtues, she does little to illuminate the music she sings. Her Mendelssohn recital, about which I wrote so warmly, was brushed aside in a leading British journal. I beg to differ; every singer has to find an interpretative manner which suits her own voice and psyche and a large, sonorous instrument needs careful husbanding. There is not a note on these two discs which is not perfectly produced, perfectly considered with regard to its weight, its expression and its place in the phrase. Given the inherent expressive character of the voice, I can only applaud Stutzmann for having found the interpretative manner which completely matches her voice.

Let it not be thought, either, that she applies a sonorous cello-like sonority to everything without a thought for the words. We do not quite have the vivid response of Maggie Teyte in the Debussy but is the Maggie Teyte approach, its conversational way with the words far forward in the mouth, not inherently that of a light soprano? Stutzmann is nonetheless acutely responsive to the rhythm of her native language. Take any of those Fauré songs where many syllables have to be inserted in a string of small notes (the first song on CD 1 will do) and you will notice that the words are placed in a conversational manner; it is easy to follow them, a little less easy to follow the single notes on the printed page. But since the longer-term rhythms of the music are always true, I am inclined to think this is an authentic feature rather than not, though it might be a dangerous one for non-native speakers to imitate. It is also notable that, whereas low voices often opt for slow tempi, Stutzmann never indulges herself in this respect, keeping everything on the move.

Where I have some doubts is over the suitability of this voice to some of the repertoire, much of which was envisaged for soprano and is here transposed down, sometimes as much as by a fourth. No problems with the Chausson, where the haunting melancholy of "Le temps des lilas" is positively enhanced by the lower key and of which we get a supreme interpretation. No problems, either, with the two Poulenc items or with most of the Fauré. "Le papillon et la fleur", usually the preserve of piping sopranos, put me slightly in mind of Dr. Johnson and the lady preacher (but it is very well done …). At a few other points I felt rather as you might feel if you heard your favourite violin music played on the viola, but on the whole these were magnificently committed Fauré performances, growing in stature as did the music itself. The selection is chronologically arranged and some of the earliest pieces are not especially distinguished.

The ironies of Ravel’s "Histoires naturelles" are a little muted by the grave delivery, but the problem for me was the Debussy. Debussy had a strange concept of the human voice, writing mostly for a light soprano but keeping mainly within her lower register in order to obtain a light, conversational and intimate delivery. In the "Chansons de Bilitis" he remains in that register so Stutzmann can sing them in the original keys. I feel, however, that by translating the music to the middle-upper register of a rich contralto voice, Debussy’s intentions have been falsified (the Maggie Teyte recording seems to prove my point), however intelligently and feelingly Stutzmann sings.

In the other two cycles Debussy, while remaining generally in the lower soprano register, occasionally sends his singer up to the stratosphere. Accordingly, Stutzmann has to adopt lower keys, with the result that what a soprano would sing with very little voice (because she hasn’t got much down there) and with corresponding attention to the words, almost a whispered effect, Stutzmann sings with a lush chest-voice. Furthermore, in the case of Debussy with his magical ear for piano sonorities, downward transpositions dull and thicken his wonderfully luminous piano-writing. It’s hard to have to say to a singer that she should not undertake to sing songs which she probably loves very much, but I’m afraid I do think that. I wish she had given us the three Verlaine songs conceived for mezzo-soprano or baritone, which call for a voice much closer to hers.

The other problem is the pianist of most of the programme, Catherine Collard. She is acceptable in Fauré though even here, having just listened to Ewa Pobłocka’s beautiful playing in Olga Pasiecznik’s French recital, I wished Stutzmann could have worked with this artist instead. In Debussy’s “Chevaux de bois” Collard’s sixteenth-notes rattle away very proficiently but Pobłocka makes poetry of them. In the last of the “Chansons de Bilitis”, too, Collard is light years away from the fascinating evenness of Cortot’s sixteenth-notes on the Teyte recording and she appears unable to make the left-hand melody at the beginning sing as he could. She is seriously over-parted by the very complex Baudelaire songs, her turgid textures (not helped by the transpositions, of course) and lack of line are disturbing.

I also feel that it was pretty stingy not to provide texts and translations for music where the words are so important. I know these things can be found on the internet, but try printing them in such a way as to be able to store them with the disc.

The good things here are wonderfully good; I hope my comments will enable you to decide if you are likely to be worried by the same things that worried me.

Christopher Howell


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