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Ernest CHAUSSON (1855-1899)
Poème de l’amour et de la mer, op. 19 (1882-90; rev. 1893) [24.15]
Symphonie in B flat major, op. 20 (1889-90) [35.48]
Véronique Gens (soprano)
Lille National Orchestra/Alexandre Bloch
rec. 2018, Auditorium du Nouveau Siècle, Lille, FRance
ALPHA 441 [60.07]

Chausson’s Poem of Love and the Sea has received a great many magnificent recordings over the years, ranging from that by Victoria de los Angeles (which constituted my first encounter with the work) through the ranks of sopranos such as Montserrat Caballé, Jessye Norman, Soili Isokoski and Felicity Lott, as well as mezzos such as Janet Baker and Susan Graham, and even including the deep contralto of Kathleen Ferrier and a couple of male singers. It is one of those luxuriant works that welcomes all varieties of interpretation and all the recordings that I have heard (by no means all of the 21 alternatives currently listed on Arkiv Music) have brought something fresh and wonderful to the richness of Chausson’s music. This new release adds Véronique Gens to the roster of distinguished interpreters – one of the surprisingly few French singers to have essayed the piece.

Indeed her interpretation is extremely idiomatic, delivering the text in a natural style of French diction, which contrasts strongly with her non-Gallic competitors with their more forcefully enunciated consonants and generally more hieratic style of declamation. She is aided and abetted by the generally flowing speeds set by Alexandre Bloch. Initially I felt that these were slightly too rapid for the composer’s indication Calme at the outset of La fleur des eaux but, since Chausson has given no more precise direction (and no metronome mark), the music does gain in fluency what it loses in grandeur at the climaxes. Only at the outset of the second song La mort de l’amour did I feel that a sense of greater solemnity could have been conveyed at a slightly less headlong speed but then, Chausson does specify a tempo of Vif et joyeux and later on in the same movement, Bloch is properly sombre at the chromatically wayward chorale marked Lent et solennel. On a personal level, I miss the sense of mystery that one finds with Baker or Norman. At the same time this marvellous music responds with affection to a variety of different interpretations. The approach of Gens and Bloch has a clear validity that sheds new light on the music.

Chausson’s Symphony has often been compared to that of Franck, due to the similarity in the frequent use of heavy brass in the scoring and the use of trumpets to reinforce the violin lines, bringing a hint of incipient vulgarity if care is not taken over the matter of balance. But here Bloch brings a real sense of refinement to the textures. The sound of the brass is more Brucknerian than we are accustomed to in this score. Indeed the expansion of tone in the slow movement brings a real sense of passion and ecstasy, and the excitement with which the finale is launched has a marvellous sense of sparkle. Chausson’s handling of his musical material is always marvellous, a coruscating combination of late romantic sounds melding into anticipations of Ravellian impressionism. It repays careful handling in terms of orchestral balance and clarity of recorded sound, both of which it receives here.

The presentation too is excellent, a gatefold sleeve containing booklet notes in English, French and German as well as complete texts and translations into English. And what makes this issue still more compelling is the fact that it is currently the only listed coupling of these two Chausson works in the catalogue – the two highlights of the composer’s orchestral output in one package.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

Previous review: Michael Cookson

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