Piau reflet 1019

Sandrine Piau (soprano)
Orchestre Victor Hugo/ Jean-François Verdier
Notes and full texts and translations included.
rec. 2022 Auditorium de la Cité des arts, Besançon, France
Full notes, texts and translations included
Alpha Classics 1019 [57]

I know Sandrine Piau principally as a singer of Baroque and Classical music, but she has recently been venturing into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and this is the second disc in a series, which began with a disc of orchestral songs by Strauss, Berg and Zemlinsky entitled Clair-Obscur. The notes accompanying the disc tell us that the earlier disc sought to explore “the confrontation between shadow and light,” whilst this one “evokes the nuances and transparencies of the French mélodie.”

Essentially what we have here is a nicely put together programme of French orchestral song, starting with Berlioz and taking us through to Britten’s early Ravelian Quatre chansons Françaises via Duparc, Koechlin, Debussy and Ravel himself. The programme is not long (under an hour) and is fleshed out with André Caplet’s orchestration of Debussy’s Clair de lune and Ernest Ansermet’s of the sixth of his 6 Epigraphes antiques. Admirably as the orchestra plays throughout under Verdier, these add very little to the programme and I would have welcomed more songs, maybe something by Chausson, Delage or Canteloube, or more by Koechlin, who is not so well represented in the catalogue. If I’m honest, I prefer the Debussy items in their original piano guise. Unlike Ravel’s orchestrations of his own piano pieces, the orchestrations don’t really improve on the originals.

The Koechlin songs were new to me, and I rather wish Piau had explored more than the three we have here. If they pique your curiosity, as they did mine, then they are available sung by Juliane Banse, along with a lot more of Koechlin’s vocal works with orchestra, in a two disc set in Hänssler’s Koechlin edition (review). What we have here is two songs from his early 4 poèmes d’Edmond Haraucourt. Op.7, and one from the slightly later 3 mélodies, Op. 17. If they lack some of Duparc’s natural melodic gift, they are nonetheless lushly orchestrated and rather beautiful and make an excellent partner for the two Duparc songs.

If the Koechlin songs afforded me the most pleasure, that could be because I didn’t know them before and therefore had no point of comparison, whereas I know all the other material rather well. I’ve loved the Britten songs since they were first recorded in the 1980s. Admittedly one can hear the influence of Ravel, particularly of Shéhérazade, but they are remarkably assured from a boy of fourteen and they do not feel out of place here, whilst the sparer textures of Ravel’s Mallarmé settings, written for two clarinets, two flutes, piano and string quartet, provide a nice contrast to the lush orchestrations of the rest.

Piau is now in her fifties and the voice has lost a little of its bloom on high. She also uses what the late John Steane once referred to as a squeeze-box method of vocal production, a tendency to move note by note rather than in a long line, which, once noticed, is hard to ignore. I also hear a slight sense of strain in the Britten songs, particularly at the close of the final song, which is not as radiant as it should be, and as it is in the performances of Jill Gomez, who made the first recording of them for EMI under Simon Rattle, and Felicity Lott, who recorded them for Chandos under Bryden Thomson.

The opening Berlioz Le spectre de la rose is taken a mite too fast for my taste and is a little on the cool side, but it does rather set the general tone of the recital. If you like it, then you will no doubt like the whole disc, but I found Piau a little lacking in involvement, a little detached.

I don’t want to belabour the point too much, because this is a very enjoyable programme, well considered and well put together and, for the most part, Piau’s singing is quite lovely, but, in the Berlioz, Duparc, Ravel and Britten, I found myself inwardly hearing the voices of some of those who have preceded her. Still, if you’re looking for a mixed programme of nineteenth and early twentieth century French orchestral song, then this disc will provide a lot of enjoyment.

Philip Tsaras


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Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)
Les Nuits d’été – Le spectre de la rose
Henri Duparc (1848-1933) – Chanson triste
Henri Duparc – L’invitation au voyage
Charles Koechlin (1867-1950) 4 poèmes d’Edmond Haraucourt – Plein eau; – Aux temps des Fées
Charles Koechlin 3 Mélodies – Epiphanie
Claude Debussy (1862-1918) – Suite bergamasque – Clair de lune (orch. André Caplet)
Maurice Ravel (1975-1937) 3 poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé
Claude Debussy – 6 épigraphes antiques – Pour remerercier la pluie au matin (orch. Ernest Ansermet)
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) 4 chansons françaises