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Charles GOUNOD (1818–1893)
Tassis Christoyannis (baritone)
Jeff Cohen (piano)
rec. 2017, Palazzetto Bru Zane, Venice
Sung texts with English translations enclosed

For the general music lover and/or collector Gounod is primarily an opera composer, most of whose twelve works in that genre having long disappeared from the repertoire – bar, of course Faust and Romeo et Juliette. His Ave Maria, based on the first prelude from Bach’s Das wohltemperierte Klavier was, at least a couple of generations ago, a pop song and his Cecilia Mass has had its followers – provided one has a sweet tooth. That he wrote mélodies may come as a surprise, even though one or two occasionally pop up on mixed recitals, but a look at a list of his complete oeuvre reveals that there are well over 300 of them. True, some of those are choral songs, some are duets and some other are not exactly mélodies in the traditional sense of the word, but many are, and they are certainly attractive, provided one has that proverbial sweet tooth. I happen to have that and I derived uninhibited pleasure from this more than well-filled disc.

The singer, Tassis Christoyannis, wasn’t completely unknown to me. Some eight years ago I reviewed a recording of Handel’s Giulio Cesare, where he sang Achilla, and I was deeply impressed (review), and more recently I enjoyed him in Gounod’s Cinq-Mars (review), so there is a natural connection with the present issue. He is Greek, but his French is impeccable and his discography contains several previous discs with French melodies, accompanied as here by Jeff Cohen. Having recently turned 50 he has a voice with as yet no signs of tear and wear. It is a well-modulated beautiful baritone, light-toned à la Baryton-Martin but with an over-drive in reserve for operatic roles, which also makes him ideal for this repertoire. Having recently listened to legendary Camille Maurane in French repertoire, I feel that here is an inheritor to that tradition. He has the same feeling for nuances, the same musical phrasing and the same care over the texts, while still preserving the legato – in other word: he is the perfect singer for this and, quite likely, any other song repertoire.

While listening through the disc in two separate sittings, I soon found that I hardly noticed his eminently sensitive interpretations, for the simple reason that he never imposes ‘clever’ readings on the material. Tassis Christoyannis lets the music speak for itself; he is only the humble servant who presents it as tastefully as possible. I could just relax and let the music wash over me and enjoying some old friends and several that in all likeliness will become new friends. There is actually no need to comment on each and every one of the 24 songs, but a few observations wouldn’t be out of place. I noted for instance that Medjé (tr. 3) is a lovely thing, a setting of a poem by Jules Barbier, better known as the librettist of Faust and Romeo et Juliette as well as Mignon by Ambroise Thomas and Les Contes d’Hoffmann by Offenbach. Théophile Gautier, another poet whose verses easily lend themselves to musical settings, is the originator of La Chanson du pêcheur (tr. 6), where Christoyannis applies a grander, full-throated approach – grand but still within the limits of his resources. He never becomes coarse. In Heureux sera jour (tr. 7) by the ‘Prince of poets’ as 16th century master Pierre de Ronsard was known by his contemporaries, his reading is light, conversational and, as always, nuanced. Gautier is back with Primavera which, in spite of the Italian title, is sung in French. Alfred de Musset’s Venice (tr. 13) is a prime example of Christoyannis’s superb soft singing. The following, Si vous n’ouvrez votre fenêtre, a charming song wonderfully sung, is a text by Alexandre Dumas fils, author of the novel La Dame aux camellias, which was adapted into Verdi’s La traviata and in the 20th century was filmed on several occasions, most famously, I believe, in 1936 with Greta Garbo as Marguerite Gautier.

What would French melodies be without Victor Hugo? Sérénade (tr. 15) is probably Gounod’s best known song and in all possibility also his best. Gautier’s Où voulez-vous aller? (tr. 16) is another lovely song and so is Au printemps in ¾-time. The text again by Jules Barbier. À une jeune Grecque (tr. 20) is a setting of a poem by Sapho, in French translation by Prosper Yraven. And then follow three songs in English, surprising maybe. The first, Maid of Athens by Lord Byron, Good Night by Shelley and the third by George Wither, and English poet I wasn’t familiar with before. He lived between 1588 and 1667 and was a prolific writer about whom C. V. Wedgwood wrote "every so often in the barren acres of his verse is a stretch enlivened by real wit and observation, or fired with a sudden intensity of feeling". Maybe I should delve deeper into his oeuvre. Dramatist Émile Augier was almost contemporaneous with Gounod and his poem Départ is a fitting conclusion to this highly attractive programme. If you have a sweet tooth you will love this disc, and even if you haven’t you can’t possibly resist the exquisite singing by Tassis Christoyannis, who is sensitively accompanied by Jeff Cohen.

Göran Forsling

1. Ma Belle Amie est morte (CG 404) [3:22]
2. Prière (CG 427) [2:54]
3. Medjé (CG 407) [3:48]
4. Le Souvenir (CG 444) [4:09]
5. Ce que je sius sans toi (CG 355) [2:57]
6. La Chanson du pêcheur (CG 397) [6:31]
7. Heureux sera le jour (CG 388) [3:11]
8. Tombez, mes ailes! (CG 463]
9. Je ne puis espérer (CG 394) [1:41]
10. Ô ma belle rebelle (CG 414) [2:50]
11. Primavera (CG 430) [2:26]
12. Quanti mai! (CG 432) [2:00]
13. Venise (CG 468) [4:45]
14. Si vous n’ouvrez votre fenétre (CG 440) [2:03]
15. Sérénade (CG 437) [3:56]
16. Où voulez-vouz aller? (CG 419) [3:17]
17. Aubade (CG 330) [2:42]
18. Le Banc de pierre (CG 335) [5:46]
19. Au printemps (CG 331) [1:40]
20. À une jeune Grecque (CG 324) [4:14]
21. Maid of Athens (CG 406) [3:51]
22. Good Night (CG 386) [2:24]
23. Sweet baby, sleep (CG 445) [3:07]
24. Départ (CG 369) [3:51]


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