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Maurice RAVEL (1873-1937)
Shéhérazade [17:02]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Le Livre de Baudelaire (Four songs from Cinq poèmes de Baudelaire) (orch. John Adams) [23:41]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Quatre chansons françaises [12:47]
Charles KOECHLIN (1867-1950)
Épiphanie (Trois Mélodies, Op. 17/3) [7:02]
Henri DUPARC (1848-1933)
Invitation au voyage [4:33]
La vie antérieure [4:18]
Phidylé [4:06]
Christiane Karg (soprano)
Bamberger Symphoniker/David Afkham
rec. 2016, Konzerthalle Bamberg, Joseph-Keilberth-Saal. DDD
French texts and English & German translations included
BERLIN CLASSICS 0300832BC [74:31]

I’ve already heard the German soprano, Christiane Karg on a number of occasions and I’ve been very impressed. To the best of my recollection, though, I’ve only heard her singing in German. This opportunity to hear her in a French programme is doubly welcome, therefore.

Her account of Ravel’s Shéhérazade makes a strong impression. Miss Karg’s sensuous tone seduces the ear. She maintains a good line and it seemed to me that her French was pretty good. However, when I listened to the great Régine Crespin’s Decca recording of ‘Asie’ I found that she does even more with the words. Perhaps you’d expect that since Crespin was a Francophone singer. Moreover, her recording, made in Geneva’s Victoria Hall as long ago as 1963 still sounds very well indeed and I think it helps that the Decca engineers opted for a somewhat clearer sound than the Berlin Classics team. Decca don’t sacrifice ambience but the singer is accorded more presence and you can also hear how much Ernest Ansermet is getting out of the orchestration. The Crespin recording is pretty incomparable, of course, and I’m also more accustomed to it than I am to this newcomer. I think Miss Karg is impressive in her own right. It’s a pity the excellent Bamberg flautist who plays in ‘La flute enchantée’ isn’t credited. I love the languid regret with which Christiane Karg sings ‘L’Indifferent’: mind you, one suspects that it won’t be long before another attractive young man hoves into view.

Le Livre de Baudelaire is the title given to John Adams’ 1994 orchestration of four of Debussy’s Cinq Poèmes de Charles Baudelaire (1888/89). The one that was omitted is ‘La mort des amants’; perhaps Adams felt this song didn’t readily lend itself to orchestration. Let me say at once that Adams’ scoring seems completely credible to me: his orchestrations respect Debussy’s music, don’t get in the way and cast the music in a different and alluring light. Miss Karg is excellent in ‘Le balcon’; this seems to be music that cries out for the diaphanous scoring that Adams provides and David Afkham and the Bambergers offer playing that’s really refined and poetic. Miss Karg’s singing here and elsewhere ravishes the ear: I see she’s sung Mélisande and here she sounds completely at home in the Debussyan milieu. Her singing is simply gorgeous in the erotic languor of ‘Le jet d’eau’; hereabouts the orchestral backdrop is both beautiful and finely detailed. ‘Recueillement’ is shot through with intense regret.

Britten wrote his Quatre chansons françaises when he was a mere 14 years of age. How precocious yet how accomplished these songs are even if, as Roger Nicholls observes in his authoritative notes, the influences of Debussy and Ravel are plain to hear. Ever self-critical, especially about his juvenilia, Britten suppressed these songs during his lifetime and they did not achieve a first performance until 1980. It seems to me that the settings are very sympathetic to the words while the orchestral scoring is very effective. I especially admire Christiane Karg’s range of expression in the third song, ‘L’Enfance’ but, in truth, she’s highly expressive in all four songs.

I freely confess that I don’t know the songs of Charles Koechlin but if the gorgeous Épiphanie is typical then that’s an omission which I must hasten to rectify. As Roger Nicholls suggests, the melodic aspect is not especially memorable but the piece makes a fine overall effect in this performance. Christiane Karg’s delivery is marvellously poised.

She closes with three of the frustratingly small output of songs – just 17 in total – from the pen of Henri Duparc. All three are masterpieces in the literature of mélodies. Karg gives us a rapturous account of L’Invitation au voyage and she’s no less expressive in the other two songs.

This is a fine disc, which I’ve enjoyed very much. Christiane Karg’s sensuous and refined singing consistently gives pleasure. She benefits from sensitive and highly responsive support from the Bamberger Symphoniker under David Afkham. The recordings themselves are very good. The documentation is comprehensive though I have to report that I found it something of a trial to read since the font is very small and the various colour schemes chosen for the pages prevent the words from standing out with ideal clarity.

John Quinn


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