Le Bal Des Animaux
Songs by Lalo, Ravel, Poulenc, Debussy, Fauré, et al
Sophie Karthäuser (soprano), Eugene Asti (Piano)
Harmonia Mundi HMM 902260 71:19 mins
Did the adage one should never work with children or animals somehow pass French composers by? They have musical traditions going back to at least the 16th century that evoke the sounds of birds and other animals, or that recall the delights of childhood. This extremely rich and entertaining collection centres largely on works from the later 19th and early 20th centuries – and, it should be said, it raises interesting questions about how performers might make sense of the surprisingly varied types of demand this repertoire places upon them.
Sophie Karthäuser and Eugene Asti are both accomplished mimics, and miss no opportunities among the larks (Lalo’s ‘L’Alouette’), cicadas (Chabrier’s ‘Les Cigales’), cats (‘Rossini’s’ famous cat duet, where Karthäuser is assisted by countertenor Dominique Visse), and other fauna. They also deftly change mood when animals are employed as mournful metaphors (Poulenc: ‘like the crayfish our relationship goes backwards’ and ‘the mouse of time gnaws at my life’). More problematic are those songs which represent little dramas with direct speech (Offenbach: ‘The Raven and the Fox’), or require the vocal evocation of character (Ravel’s song about the stubborn haughtiness of peacocks), or paint a scene (Chabrier: ‘Pastorale of the Pink Pigs’) where the performer needs to move back and forth effortlessly between description and responsive delight. The disc does contain some rarities – for example, ‘L’Oiselet’ by the famous opera singer and composer Pauline Viardot which ends with a cadenza so spectacular it might just startle the children.