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Invitation au Voyage: Don Quixote and French Songs
Giorgos Kanaris (baritone)
Thomas Wise (piano)
rec. 2019, Augustinum, Bonn, Germany

The biography in the booklet accompanying this disc has the singer winning a competition as long ago as 2005, so Greek baritone Giorgos Kanaris has been on the scene for quite some time. His voice, strong and firm in the lower register, does not lose its character when the music rises above the stave. On the contrary, the listener will note a slight feeling of strain that is both pleasing and appropriate, with no shouting; this is intended as a compliment! He projects a fine, secure musical line, tuning is pretty much impeccable, and he is refreshingly free of vocal mannerisms. All of this adds up to an extremely pleasant experience.

I assume Kanaris’s mother tongue is Greek, a language I do not speak at all. I am only too aware, however, how challenging it is to sing in French. Kanaris has clearly devoted time to mastering those difficult vowels, and only a few defeat him. The flat ‘e’ in words like ‘le’, ‘me’ and ‘ce’ are particularly troublesome. That said, I have yet to hear a non-French singer who could deceive a native French speaker in this repertoire.

Kanaris is well served by his pianist. Thomas Wise is on top of the technical demands of the programme and is extremely attentive to the singer, breathing and phrasing with him. In short, as an accompanist he is irreproachable, but far from anonymous: the piano parts are full of individuality and personality. The performers have been very well recorded, but the presentation is poor. The booklet carries information about both artists in German and English, but none at all about the programme. Texts are provided, but only in French – unless you count one single, final line of one Duparc song, bizarrely added in English at the end. Poets’ names are sometimes given, sometimes not, and timings are unreliable. A minimum of proofreading would have helped.

Debussy’s songs to texts by Verlaine are early works, predating Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. They are immediately attractive, and the Trois chansons de France are more distinctive still. Two of the three are settings of poems by Charles d’Orléans, a poet to whom Debussy was later to return. Even minor Debussy demands to be heard, but Ibert’s songs are noticeably more substantial, and those by Ravel are remarkable masterpieces. Kanaris sings these with great skill, and has evidently taken considerable care in their preparation, but he is up against some formidable competition when comparative listening is allowed. The great Belgian baritone, José Van Dam, has recorded these works several times and they fit him like a glove. In the first of the Ravel songs a subtle control and variety of tone colour allows him to express both the seduction and the sincerity of the Don’s promises to Dulcinée; Kanaris, for all his fine singing, can only hint at this. The passion Van Dam injects into the second song is extraordinary, and he is deliciously tipsy in the third. In these short, miraculous songs from the end of Ravel’s career – before neurological disease condemned him to silence – Kanaris is a fine and reliable guide, but Van Dam gets to their heart in an unrivalled way.

A particularly valuable aspect of this disc is the inclusion of twelve of the seventeen songs left to us by Henri Duparc, another composer whose career was brought to a close by cruel mental illness. Perhaps best known of these is the one that gives the collection its title, L’invitation au voyage, a lovely melody with a piano accompaniment that suddenly sparks into life to illustrate the sunset. Otherwise, these songs tend to communicate an overall mood, the music rarely responding to individual words or ideas in the poems. An exception to this is La vague et la cloche, recalling a violent nightmare during a drugged sleep. Whereas Kanaris seems very much at home in the gentler songs – the preceding Sérénade florentine, for example; and even more so the following Extase, a lovely interpretation of a particularly lovely song – he seems overwrought here, less comfortable vocally and with pronunciation hanging fire more frequently. I feel the same about Le manoir de Rosamonde, where a reference to horses provokes pounding hooves in the accompaniment.

Duparc was brave to set words by Théophile Gautier after Berlioz had so triumphantly done so in Les nuits d’été. The title of Duparc’s song is Lamento, following the poet, whereas Berlioz, more romantically, calls it ‘Au cimetière: Clair de Lune’. Kanaris once again seems more at ease with Gautier’s sad musing than he is with the dark anguish of the following Testament. But then, maybe Duparc was also. The lovely major key opening of the following Chanson triste brings a smile. Here, Kanaris is able to open up and express himself as he would in Verdi, say; this is ardent, beautiful singing full of passion.

There are many lovely things in this collection, and though one sometimes wishes for greater variety of tone from Kanaris, the singing is generally very satisfying and the disc can be confidently recommended to collectors seeking such a programme.

William Hedley

Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Trois mélodies de Paul Verlaine (1891) [5:57]
Trois chansons France (1904) [5:26]
Jacques IBERT (1890-1962)
Chansons de Don Quichotte (1933) [9:18]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Don Quichotte à Dulcinée (1933) [6:27]
Henri DUPARC (1848-1933)
L’invitation au voyage (1870) [3:41]
Sérénade florentine (1880) [2:26]
La Vague et la cloche (1871) [5:25]
Extase (1874) [2:44]
Phidylé (1882) [4:29]
Le Manoir de Rosamonde (1879) [2:19]
Lamento (1883) [3:11]
Testament (1883) [3:38]
Chanson triste (1868) [2:53]
Elégie (1874) [2:45]
Soupir (1869) [3:09]
La Vie antérieure (1884) [3:41]

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