Tout en chantant sur le mode mineur

Posted on November 25, 2011


With this re-issue recording, soprano Karina Gauvin and pianist Marc-André Hamelin explore the history of the French song (therefore, also French poetry) from Fauré to Poulenc, via Ravel, Debussy, Arthur Honneger and Émile Vuillermoz.

Most suitable for hosting a date chez soi: The Fauré songs, especially Clair de lune and En sourdine, both to words by Verlaine. The beautiful longueurs, the elaborate sound paintings, the way the piano continues the song when the voice falls silent — all build an atmosphere of intimacy and expectation.

Most erotic, no contest: Debussy’s Chansons de Bilitis (La flûte de Pan, La chevelure, Le tombeau des Naïades) to the poetry by Pierre Louÿs. Gorgeous, dark, sexy text, which could be summed up as Anaïs Nin-erotica-meets-Symbolism, intertwines with the equally gorgeous music in many shades of danger and after-love-is-gone melancholy.

Most imaginative: Paganini, by Poulenc to the words by Louise de Vilmorin, in which the many notions of the violin are teased out. Violon chevalier du silence / Jouet évadé de bonheur / Poitrine des mille présences / Bateau de plaisance / Chasseur.

The funnest: Poulenc’s Fête galante, to the poem by Louis Aragon. Irreverent and playful; poetical roller-coaster, and also social commentary. Jacques Brel is its cousin.

Best sixteenth-century escapism: ‘Saluste du Bartas’, Honegger’s cycle (written by Pierre Bedat de Monlaur) about a Gascon poet who was also a lover of the Queen Marguerite of Navarre. Honegger composed it in 1941, and as a combination of the late Romantic beauty of sound and frequent if gentle dissonance, it’s only a very partial escapism.

Most catchy tune, yet you wonder if it means what you fear it means: the folkish Cœcilia (Vuillermoz, to a traditionelle song) with a cheerful tune, seemingly about a girl who falls in love with a sailor. The disturbance provided by the insistent recurring verse “Sautez mignonne Cœcilia” (Jump, pretty Cecilia). Is this about a punishment for ‘lost honour’? About an eloping girl jumping into a boat and sailing away? About a Senta of sorts?

What comes to mind while listening to Gauvin: this woman doesn’t have any breaks between registers. She is equally alto-mezzo-soprano. Seriously, people. This voice is equally muscular from the dark bottom to the stainless-steel top.

Another question coming to mind: why did the song as a viable composition form die out? Was it because the Lieder and the mélodies sustained themselves primarily through the sale of the piano and vocal scores and were performed in private homes by the bien-élevé women and men, when playing the piano and singing was important part of the general education?

Sampling table for the Fête galante is laid on its ATMA Classique page. The customarily good liner notes are by Irène Brisson.