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Si J’ai Aimé
Sandrine Piau (soprano)
Le Concert de la Loge/Julien Chauvin
rec. 2018, Arsenale-Cité Musicale de Metz, France
Texts and translations included ALPHA 445 [59:25]
Sandrine Piau’s first song recital for the Alpha Label, with pianist Susan Manoff, was entitled Chimères (Alpha 397). It garnered good reviews and some awards, including the Diapason d’Or. This new song recital celebrates French song with orchestra, reflecting the need for some examples of the genre to be heard not just in the salon and recital room, but also in the concert hall. Sandrine Piau has selected song settings by masters such as Berlioz, Saint-Saëns and Massenet as well as by the more obscure figures of Dubois, Guilmant, and Bordes. Julien Chauvin and his period instrument ensemble, Le Concert de la Loge, not only provide excellent accompaniments to the songs but leaven the vocal numbers with brief orchestral pieces by Pierné, Massenet, Godard and Duparc - it must be a rarity, even a perversity, when Duparc appears in a French song recital, but represented only by a non-vocal work. The recital is arranged by the seasons or stages of love, so reflects an education sentimentale, an education in feeling.
The opening pair of songs by Saint-Saëns make a fine beginning. Piau captures the mood ideally at the outset of the first song, Extase, with a quietly ecstatic, rapt manner. The second, Papillons has a fluttering winged flute solo to evoke the evanescent butterflies of the title. With Saint-Saëns as with Berlioz, the orchestral writing is part of the musical texture, not a mere transcription of a piano accompaniment. Piau even exhibits a real trill to match the flighty mood and texture. Charles Bordes was a new name to me, and he is worth getting to know if this fine and very passionate song is characteristic of his skill. The same could be said of the examples from the works of Dubois and Guilmant. If I had to pick one of these for you to sample, it would be the breathlessly catchy Sous le saule (“Under the willow tree”) by Théodore Dubois.
The more familiar music comes with the two numbers from Berlioz’s Les Nuits d'été. They are slightly less persuasive than the others, perhaps because we know them so well from larger voices and with a heaver rhetorical manner than Madame Piau offers. Maybe the idea was to regain them for this mélodie tradition. They are perfectly well sung of course, with a swift tempo for Villanelle that not every soprano could manage with such precise articulation.
None of the songs here is negligible, even if the booklet’s claims of “jewel cases” and “gems” slightly exaggerates the status of one or two items which are only semi-precious stones. There is added lustre, though, when they are given with such polish as Sandrine Piau’s singing can supply. Her tone is appealing, bright and light, but can be coloured subtly to match a mood, and above all she has the clarity of diction of a native speaker, essential for this genre. The great singers of the mélodie seem always to transmit the poem – which is often from a major poet – as much as to sing its setting. I was less enamoured of the four orchestral numbers that are inserted at irregular intervals. They break up the sequence of vocal numbers in a way intended no doubt to provide contrast, and the period instruments make them sound delightful, but they are not all equally interesting in themselves. They include two of the three longest items on the disc, and occupy about 16 minutes of a 59 minute song recital. When the French song repertoire is so vast, and you have been uncovering many obscure examples well worth hearing, more songs might have been a better choice – there was space for both in fact, with about 20 minutes of disc space left anyway.
But that minor grouse apart, this is a very fine recital disc in terms of both repertoire, performance, and documentation – very clear texts and translations, and helpful notes – with well-balanced sound. The disc ends with an enchanting item you will know - Plaisir d’amour by Martini. That comes from the 1780s, but sneaks into a recital of “French Romantic Song” courtesy of Berlioz’s orchestration. It is by far the best known French art song I suspect, and will provide you with an “aha!” moment right at the end of this highly enjoyable programme.
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