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Joseph CANTELOUBE (1879-1957)
Chants d'Auvergne
Carolyn Sampson (soprano)
Tapiola Sinfonietta/Pascal Rophé
rec. March 2020, Tapiola Hall, Espoo, Finland. DSD
Texts & English translations included
BIS BIS-2513 SACD [69:02]

Joseph Canteloube published the first four sets of his Chants d'Auvergne between 1923 and 1930; the fifth volume was much later, appearing in 1955. For me, these much-loved arrangements fall under the heading of ‘naughty but nice’. They’re ‘naughty’ in the sense that Canteloube clothed these essentially simple traditional songs in a gorgeous orchestral raiment. However, the wonderful colours and imagination of the orchestrations puts them into the ‘nice’ category, and if you have a fine singer to deliver them, they become even nicer. My own two favourite versions have been the selection of twenty-four songs which Victoria de los Angeles recorded for EMI in 1968 (review) and the complete set that Dame Kiri Te Kanawa set down for Decca in 1983/84. Ralph Moore summarised the pros and cons of both these versions, and many others, in his recent survey of thirty recordings. The Te Kanawa recording, which I was tickled to see described (not unfairly) as the “voice, voice and more voice” version, was one of his picks.

Now we have a new entrant into the lists. I was keen to review this new version by Carolyn Sampson because she’s a singer I greatly admire, but my wish to hear the disc was given fresh impetus because I’d recently seen and heard her in radiant form in Haydn’s Creation at the 2021 Three Choirs Festival (review). In total, there are 30 Chants d'Auvergne. Ms Sampson sings the majority of them here: just two songs are omitted from Series 2, one from Series 4 and two from Series 5.

The first thing to say about this new SACD is that the sound strikes me as well-nigh ideal. I listened to the stereo layer of the disc and found the recording present and realistic. Carolyn Sampson is balanced very successfully against the orchestra; her voice is very clearly heard but she’s not too forwardly placed. By comparison, Victoria de los Angeles is a bit too prominent, though it must be remembered that her recording was made more than five decades ago. BIS have recorded the Tapiola Sinfonietta with their customary clarity; I love the soft cushion of string sound in some of the quieter songs while elsewhere there’s just the right degree of cut-through for the woodwinds, allowing Canteloube’s lovely or tangy decorative lines for those instruments to register very pleasingly. Producer Jens Braun and engineer Christian Starke have done a fine job. The excellent recording allows us to savour the performances to the full.

I’m not going to beat about the bush: I enjoyed the music-making enormously. Carolyn Sampson is on terrific form. Her diction is excellent and the sheer sound of her voice gave me consistent pleasure. Set 1 opens the disc in winning fashion. In ‘La pastoura als camps’ (The Shepherdess in the Fields) she gaily relates the story, singing characterfully but with a pleasing lightness of touch. I also loved the woodwind contributions and admired the rhythmic lightness that Pascal Rophé gets from the orchestra. In these sets of songs there are quite a number that concern shepherdesses and Ms Sampson is conspicuously successful in all of them. Next up is the famous ‘Baïlèro’. This gets a captivating performance. If the Tapiola woodwinds impressed in the preceding song, they’re even better here; in fact, Canteloube’s wonderfully atmospheric woodwind lines are bewitchingly delivered. Carolyn Sampson sings the languorous vocal line beautifully. Kiri Te Kanawa, who sings the song more slowly, lavishes refulgent, creamy tone on the music. Much though I love the sound she makes I think that Carolyn Sampson, though fractionally less creamy, is no less alluring and now that I’ve heard the two performances side by side, I prefer the gently affecting Sampson. Victoria de los Angeles has more of an edge to her tone – by no means inappropriate for what were originally, in essence, peasant songs - but for me Ms Sampson takes the palm. Set 1 is completed by a series of three short Bourées. These are linked by solo passages for oboe and, later, for the clarinet. Both little interludes are marvellously played.

In the selection from Set 2, I was greatly taken with ‘Pastourelle’ (Shepherdess). It’s a very lovely song and Carolyn Sampson sings it so expressively, caressing the long, slow-moving lines. Kiri Te Kanawa’s singing is predictably lustrous but Ms Sampson matches her. Equally persuasive is her account of ‘La delaissado’ (The Deserted One). Here, the plaintive woodwind lines and darker orchestral hues – darker by comparison with most of the arrangements – enhance the gentle sadness of the song. Ms Sampson captures the melancholy of the music perfectly. This is one of the outstanding performances in the programme.

Moving into Set 3, I love Carolyn Sampson’s delivery of ‘Lo fiolairé’ (The Spinner); she invests the music with enchanting lightness. At the end of the group, ‘Malurous qu'o uno fenno’ (Unfortunate he who has a wife) is given a spirited, witty performance. In between we hear ‘Brezairola’ (Lullaby). In this beautifully spun performance, the hushed playing of the Tapiola Sinfonietta is a delight; they display great sensitivity. Ms Sampson’s singing, mainly in mezza voce, is delicate and reassuring.

In Set 4, ‘Oi ayai’ (Oh! Ah!) is an amusing tale and it’s perfectly pointed by both singer and orchestra in this BIS performance. In this song I feel that Kiri Te Kanawa doesn’t have the same lightness of delivery that Ms Sampson achieves; that gives the latter an advantage. Victoria de los Angeles is more characterful than either but I wonder if the characterisation is actually a bit excessive? ‘Per l'efan’ (For the Child) is a tender lullaby; Carolyn Sampson’s touching singing and the gentle, refined orchestral playing are ideally suited to the piece. They then go on to deliver ‘Tchut, tchut’ (Shush, shush!) with point-of-a-needle delicacy. The set concludes with ‘Lou coucut’ (The Cuckoo). Here, the singing is witty and very lively and the orchestral playing sparkles.

Canteloube published Set 5 of the Chants d'Auvergne just a couple of years before he died. I’m not sure the fires were burning quite so brightly by then; I find this set slightly less effervescent. Still, there’s much to enjoy and the standard of performance here is just as exalted as was the case with the earlier sets of songs. ‘La-haut, sur le rocher’ (Up there, on the rock) is the only one of the collection that’s in French rather than in the Auvergnois dialect. It’s a most engaging song which Carolyn Sampson sings touchingly – and with spirit in one or two places. In ‘Uno jionto pastouro’ (A pretty shepherdess) we experience the sadness of the shepherd girl who has been jilted. Carolyn Sampson’s tone and sense of line are a huge asset in a song such as this. Her performance tugs at the heart strings. The last song in her programme, ‘Lou diziou be’ (They said) is a girl’s firm warning to her fella, Pierre, that he’d better behave himself in future. This is delivered with no little relish.

I really enjoyed this SACD. Carolyn Sampson is a delightful and highly engaging soloist. She sings the slow, lyrical songs beautifully, investing words and music with great feeling. She’s just as successful in the quick, witty numbers; in these you can tell that she’s singing with a smile on her face. Her diction is admirably clear and though I’m no expert in the pronunciation of the Auvergnois dialect, what I heard corresponded with what I expected to hear as I followed the texts in the booklet. Ms Sampson’s partnership with Pascal Rophé and the Tapiola Sinfonietta is a conspicuous success; Rophé obtains playing that is highly animated or sensitive and refined, depending on the requirements of each individual song. I’ve only included in this review a few spot comparisons with the versions by Victoria de los Angeles and Kiri Te Kanawa but I think the comparisons I’ve made are indicative of the general differences between the three respective recordings. I know that I shall continue to enjoy greatly the versions by those two great singers but, overall, I think it will be Carolyn Sampson’s performance to which I shall turn first in the future.

I’ve already commented on the superb recorded sound. The other production values are equally high, with the texts and English translations clearly laid out in the booklet. The notes by Jean-Pascal Vachon are very good. One aspect of his essay gave me pause for thought. He refers to the large and diverse body of compositions that Canteloube left us but comments that the rest of his output has been overshadowed by the Chants d'Auvergne. How right he is. A quick look at the websites of a couple of well-known retailers revealed an abundance of recordings of these songs but precious few of other music by Canteloube. I admit to near-complete ignorance of the rest of his output; it would be nice to have the opportunity to hear some of it.

Returning to the matter in hand, though, every track on this new SACD is a treat. I’m conscious that it won’t be long before MusicWeb reviewers are invited to nominate their Recordings of the Year. This one is certain to be high on my personal shortlist.

John Quinn

Series 1 (complete)
La pastoura als camps (La bergère aux champs)
Baïlèro (Chant de bergers de Haute-Auvergne)
L'aio de rotso (L'eau de source)
Ound'onoren gorda ? (Où irons-nous garder?)
"Obal, din lou limouzi (La-bas dans le limousin)

From Series 2
no.1 Pastourelle
no.4 La delaissado (La delaissee)
no.5 Deux bourrees no.1 N'ai pas ieu de mio (Je n'ai pas d'amie)
no.6 Deux bourrees no.2 Lo calhe (La caille)

Series 3 (complete)
Lo fiolairé (La fileuse)
Passo pel prat (Viens par le pré)"
Lou boussu (Le bossu)
Brezairola (Berceuse)
Malurous qu'o uno fenno (Malheureux qui a une femme)

From Series 4
no.1 Jou l'Pount d'o Mirabel (Au Pont de Mirabel)
no.2 Oi ayai
no.3 Per l'efan (Pour l'enfant)
no.4 Tchut, tchut
no.6 Lou coucut (Le coucou)

From Series 5
no.2 Quan z'eyro petitoune (Lorsque j'etais petite)
no.3 La-haut, sur le rocher
no.4 He! beyla-z-y dau fe! (He! donne-lui du foin!)
no.6 Te, l'co te! (Va, l'chien, va!)
no.7 Uno jionto pastouro (Une jolie bergere)
no.8 Lou diziou be (On dirait bien)

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