Un frisson français: A century of French song

Susan Graham, Malcolm Martineau (Onyx 4030)

25 September 2008 4 stars

Susan GrahamAs the ravishing sounds she produces throughout this new CD demonstrate, Onyx Classics has scored a coup in signing up American mezzo-soprano superstar Susan Graham to record an album with them.

And it's typical of the boutique label that the artist has been matched to a repertoire that suits her down to the ground.

The project is a fascinating one, bringing together twenty-four songs from twenty-two French composers, taking us from the 'founding fathers' of mélodie in the nineteenth century – Bizet, Franck, Gounod – to Poulenc's melodrama 'La Dame de Monte-Carlo' of 1961. The result is as sharply insightful an overview of French song as you could hope to find on a single disc.

The opening words of the first track – Bizet's 'Chanson d'avril' – say it all: 'Leve-toi!' sings Graham, and we really do wake up to witness her musical journey through a century of works. Instantly, one can sense her idiomatic grasp of the language – rare in a non-native speaker – which helps her to make as persuasive a case as possible for this oft-neglected repertoire.

Graham and her accompanist, the redoubtable Malcolm Martineau, have grouped the items into five sections. The first brings together Bizet, Franck, Lalo, Gounod and Saint-Saëns, songs which display the smooth line for which the French are famous. The strongest of these are Gounod's 'Au rossignol', which is both textually and musically full of nocturnal reflections, and the rarely-heard song version of Saint-Saëns' 'Danse macabre', which provides Graham with a challenging tongue-twister. She dispatches the latter with consummate ease, and I can't resist the temptation to keep listening to it in isolation from the rest of the disc.

The second group is all about strongly coloured music from the fin-de-siècle, and in Chabrier's 'Les Cigales' – a half-comic song about cicadas – it's the expressive piano part that stands out. Another animal song, Chausson's 'Les Papillons', also relies on the piano part to conjure up the fluttering of wings, though Graham's admirably full-toned rendition of the vocal line is also striking. The singer comes to the fore more in Bachelet's 'Chère nuit' – more obviously a vocal showcase for a dramatic opera singer and utterly spellbinding in Graham's hands – though I must confess that Paladilhé's 'Psyche' is slightly on the sentimental side for my taste, beautiful though Graham's rendition is.

Much more original and inspiring is Ravel's mighty 'Le Paon', a rather poignant song about a peacock who struts about in his full regalia as if it were his wedding day – only his bride never comes. The combination of the French baroque double-dotted rhythms with a more sophisticated harmonic language (which is one of the themes of the third group of songs) makes this a gripping experience, and both Graham and Martineau truly engage with the material. Caplet's similarly vivid 'The Crow and the Fox' likewise encourages Graham to dramatise the material in a quasi-theatrical manner, while the set is completed by contrasting numbers by Roussel, Messiaen and Debussy (the latter's haunting 'Colloque sentimental' is special amongst these).

The final group takes us into a mid-twentieth-century mood of introspection and retrospective contemplation. Childhood and the inheritance of the music of the past are infused through the songs of six composers including Fauré, Hahn, Canteloube and Honegger. It's the two comic songs that stand out for me. First we have Satie's 'Le Chapelier', which is a two-stanza work describing the Mad Hatter's predicament in Alica in Wonderland: his watch is three days slow, even though he took care to grease it with butter, and dipping it in tea isn't helping to make it go faster. Meanwhile, the 'English Mouse' of Rosenthal's song departs from the port of Manchester without knowing where the ship was bound.  She terrorises the burghers of Calais, who put down different kinds of cheese to catch her, including Brie and Gruyere, but don't succeed until they provide the Cheshire variety. Graham relishes the wittiness of both these items, especially the use of both English and French words in the Rosenthal piece.

The disc comes to an end with Poulenc's seven-minute 'La Dame de Monte-Carlo', which was his final vocal work (1961). Telling the suicidal story of the 'Lady of Monte Carlo', it calls upon both singer and pianist to evoke a plethora of colours and emotions, and Graham and Martineau work hard to oblige. It's truly a masterpiece, adding to Poulenc's trademark techniques – a leaping melodic line and thick, blank chords in the piano – a remarkably autumnal wistfulness.

I interviewed Susan Graham about the programme recorded on this CD just before she embarked on a tour of the world's concert halls with it; the article can be read here. The familiarity with the material gained from performing it live has reaped dividends in this studio recording, and for me, at least, the disc has gone some way to opening up the wealth of variety in a repertoire that has an inferior reputation to its German counterparts.

By Dominic McHugh

See also Susan Graham's new Berlioz disc with Simon Rattle here.