L’heure exquise: A French Songbook

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COMPOSERS: Bachelet,Berlioz,Chabrier,Chausson,Debussy,Faure,Gounod,Hahn,Koechlin and Poulenc,Poulenc,Saint-Saens,Satie
LABELS: Hyperion
ALBUM TITLE: L’heure exquise: A French Songbook
WORKS: Songs by Poulenc, Hahn, Fauré, Gounod, Chabrier, Chausson, Saint-Saëns, Berlioz, Chabrier, Bachelet, Debussy, Satie, Koechlin and Poulenc
PERFORMER: Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano), Graham Johnson (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: CDA 67962

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Sexiness is a rare quality. Listen to most non-French singers sing mélodies and you can hear a faint simper or coyness as they tackle sad-sweet standards such as Poulenc’s Les chemins de l’amour and Satie’s Je te veux. There is nothing bashful about Alice Coote’s singing. In a selection of songs from the Gothic opiate of Berlioz’s Le spectre de la rose to the Second Empire effusions of Gounod, Chabrier and Saint-Saëns, the hot house blooms of Hahn, Chausson and Bachelet, and the tender ironies of Fauré, Debussy, Poulenc and Charles Koechlin, Coote demonstrates the sexiest quality any singer can possess: complete attention to the text.

It helps to have a beautiful voice, to be able to spin a high note (in Hahn’s L’heure exquise) and seamlessly dip into chest voice (in Fauré’s Fleur jetée), to know when to cool it (in Debussy’s La grotte) and when to turn on the heat (in the Satie). But the major achievement here is Coote’s minute responsiveness to the poetry, the colour of vowel and consonant, and the precise function of each word, as demonstrated in the Brel-like conversational rhythms of Koechlin’s Novembre. Though the textures are sometimes blurred in the fingers of veteran pianist Graham Johnson, he identifies the difference between moonlight, candlelight and sunlight. As a sequence, it is brilliantly programmed.

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Anna Picard