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Véronique Gens (soprano)
I Giardini
Rec. 26-29 August 2019, at Salle Philharmonique de Liège (Belgium)
Sung texts with English translations enclosed
ALPHA CLASSICS 589 [61:41]

Several thematic song recitals have come my way the last few years and that is always interesting, and conspicuously often they have been focusing on French repertoire. This latest species sticks out a bit insofar as the songs are accompanied not by a piano but by a piano quintet, which seems to have been rather common during the late 19th century. That way the songs fall somewhere between the traditional melodies and orchestral songs. Three of the works in this disc exist in this shape in the original: Lekeu’s Nocturne, Chausson’s Chanson perpétuelle, and Fauré’s cycle La bonne chanson. It should be said that Lekeu and Fauré wrote the first version for piano and song but later arranged them for quintet, while Chausson conceived them for strings and piano from the beginning. He also included a double bass, which here is omitted. All the other quintet arrangements are provided by Alexandre Dratwicki. There are also three purely instrumental pieces.

The programme is divided in four parts: Night of Love, Foreign Night, Night of Anguish and Night of Festivity. I have to say that the Night of Love section isn’t very excited. Both Lekeu’s Nocturne and Fauré’s La lune blanche are only dreamy and embedded in calm soft strings. Very beautiful it is and the line in Nocturne: Le chanson murmurante et douce really hits the nail on the head. Berlioz’s LÎle inconnue from Les nuits d’été blows life in the summer night, and here the piano protrudes from the strings for a more active role, abetted by the strings playing pizzicato.

The oriental section is more thrilling and it opens with Fernand de la Tombelle, a composer hitherto unknown to me, but incidentally I do have a two-CD-set awaiting in my review with his organ music, which I very much look forward to hearing. He was first and foremost organist and also composed a lot for his instrument. Orientale is however a work for piano four hands which later was orchestrated. It is atmospheric but not very Orient oriented. Massenet’s Nuit d’Espagne on the other hand is lively with a distinct Spanish touch. Saint-Saëns’s contribution was initially a tenor aria from his opera La Princesse jaune which he recycled to a mélodie for voice and piano. Here it is followed by the Allegro from the overture to the opera, which becomes a really enticing piano quintet movement, partly rather virtuosic. And as usual the composer is a good tunesmith and also manages to catch something of the Orient.

For Night of Anguish the producers (Palazzetto Bru Zane) chose Chausson’s Chanson perpetuelle, which brings us back to the dreamy impressionism of the opening of the programme. Chausson is best known for his Poème for violin and orchestra and the song cycle Poème de l'amour et de la mer; the same mood is evident in Chanson perpetuélle – gloomy but beautiful. Franz Liszt was of course Hungarian but he spent many years in France and can be regarded as half French. La lugubre gondola is a late work, composed in Venice in 1882 as a premonition of Wagner’s death. The following year he arranged it for violin or cello and piano, but that version wasn’t published until after Liszt’s demise. The mood is certainly lugubrious and the deep warm tones of the cello strengthens that feeling – but also soothes. Guy Ropartz was a prolific composer in many genres, including melodies, but today his music is rarely heard even though he is well represented in the record catalogues. The song here is a setting of a poem by Heine, translated by the composer, who also was a poet in his own right. It is an attractive song which makes me eager to hear more of his output. It is followed by what probably is the best known piece of music in this programme, Fauré’s Après un rêve, for once heard with discreet string accompaniment. Very beautifully sung.

For the last part of the night, the festive life, Véronique Gens and her musicians let their hair down for a grande finale. Widor is primarily known for his colourful organ music, but here a movement from his piano quintet sweeps away the lugubrious thoughts of the darkness. This life-enhancing Molto vivace is succeeded by Marcel Louiguy’s world-hit La vie en rose. The lyrics are by Edith Piaf, who also launched the song in the mid-1940s, but Henri Contet also had a finger in the text. Many are those singers who have performed – and recorded La vie en rose – but it is still Piaf’s voice one thinks of as soon as one hears it. If I say that Véronique Gens’s reading sounds just as authentic – although quite different – that is the highest praise I can give. It is so sensitively sung and in the reprise she adds some emphasis – only to end on a pianissimo. André Messager’s ironic J’ai deux amants (I have two lovers) is from the musical comedy L’amour masque from 1923, with a libretto by actor and playwright Sasha Guitry, who also played the role Lui (He) in the performance and whose wife Yvonne Printemps was Elle (She). It was the charming Printemps who sang J’ai deux amants and confessed that she had two lovers, because “They give me the same amount of money exactly every month, and I make each of them believe the other has given me twice that much each time”. But the conclusion in the second stanza is: “I don’t know how we women are, but good heavens, how stupid a man is! So just think … two of them!” Veronique Gens is also a clever comedienne and sings with tongue in cheek. And then she rounds off with Reynaldo Hahn’s lovely Satie-like La dermière valse.

Véronique Gens has for many years been a great favourite and though her tone has hardened a little and the vibrato widened a mite, she has retained her lightness, her charm, her discreet expressivity, her beauty of tone and her French-ness, and in this delectable programme she fulfils the expectations I had when I opted for this disc. The repertoire is unhackneyed and interesting, the approach with a piano quintet is an interesting alternative, I may have liked some songs more than others but I’m satisfied – also with the playing of I Giardini. Readers who appreciate Véronique Gens as much as I do should definitely contemplate a purchase, others are advised to sample first.

Göran Forsling

Previous review: Michael Cookson

Crépuscule. Nuit d’amour
Guillaume LEKEU (1870 – 1894)
1. Nocturne (Trois poèmes) [4:52]
Gabriel FAURÉ (1845 – 1924)
2. La lune blanche luit dans les bois (La bonne chanson)* [2:33]
Hector BERLIOZ (1803 – 1869)
3. l’Île inconnue (Les nuits d’été)* [3:20]

Rêve. Nuit d’ailleurs
Fernand de la TOMBELLE (1854 – 1928)
4. Orientale* [5:08]
Jules MASSENET (1842 – 1912)
5. Nuit d’espagne* [3:15]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835 – 1921)
6. Désir de l’orient* [5:52]

Cauchemar. Nuit d’angoisse
Ernest CHAUSSON (1855 – 1889)
7. Chanson perpétuelle [6:26]
Franz LISZT (1811 – 1886)
8. La lugubre gondole pour violoncelle et piano [9:18]
Guy ROPARTZ ((1864 – 1955)
9. Ceux qui, parmi les morts d’amour (Quatre poèmes)* [2:37]
Gabriel FAURÉ
10. Après un rêve* [2:32]

Ivresse. Nuit de fête
Charles-Marie WIDOR (1844 – 1937)
11. Molto vivace (Quintette avec piano, No. 1 Op. 7) [3:51]
Marcel LOUIGUY (1916 – 1991)
12. La vie en rose* [4:32]
André MESSAGER (1853 – 1929)
13. J’ai deux amants (L’amour masqué)* [2:48]
Reynaldo HAHN (1874 – 1947)
14. La dernière valse (Une revue)* [4:28]
* denotes transcriptions by Alexandre Dratwicki

I Giardini: Shuichi Okada (violin), Pablo Schatzman (violin), Léa Hennino (viola), Pauline Buet (cello), David Violi (piano)

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