ALBUM TITLE: Irma Kolassi Sings Fauré, Ravel, Milhaud, Aubert, Etc
PERFORMER: with André Collard, Jacqueline Bonneau (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: SBT 1291 ADD mono
Haven’t quite cracked French song yet? Here are the voices that did it for me and, I guarantee, will do it for you. No, stronger than that: this is a treasure trove and, if you’re at all susceptible to the ancient art of marrying poetry to music, it will charm, disarm, delight, ravish, transport and move you deeply. Remarkably, only one of these singers was French-born. Now in his eighties, GÉRARD SOUZAY has made more song records than almost anyone else. Until recently, you could only buy his later ones, where his voice shows the effects of all that work. Testament has quarried Decca’s vaults for long-buried 78s and LPs from 1950-56, Souzay’s prime. His baritone blooms, the centred weight and colour making it ideally versatile. The range and rightness of Souzay’s responses to the ambitious repertoire on Testament’s five CDs must owe something to his lessons with Pierre Bernac and Claire Croiza; and also to that respect that the French still accord to Classical ideals of decorum, proportion and artfulness. Highlights? Almost impossible but, if I was the Virgin, listening to Debussy’s setting of medieval robber-poet Jacques Villon, I’d melt at the tender solicitousness of Souzay’s prayer for his unlettered mum; if I was a turkey, after Souzay’s affectionately vivid sketch, I’d almost forgive the guinea-fowl of Ravel’s Histoires naturelles her cussedness. With some of the best Chausson, Duparc and Fauré you’re likely to hear, these two recitals are an irresistible ‘Invitation au voyage’ to the heart of the French lyrical imagination. Schumann and Wolf inspire from Souzay gentle, vulnerable readings no less Romantic (with a big R) than Fischer-Dieskau’s powerful Expressionism. Souzay’s Schubert is as supple and light as Peter Schreier’s (not quite, obviously, as natively German), but smoother and darker. The older, rarer German repertoire – superb songs by CPE Bach, among others – makes me regret that Souzay was never co-opted into a Bach project. But there’s compensation: histrionic Lully and Gluck, witty and touching arie antiche by Scarlatti, Caccini, etc, with fine piano parts by Arne Dørumsgaard (my one quibble with Alan Blyth’s perceptive booklet essays: where are the ‘tedious moments’?). Decca was on the ball in the Fifties – the same virtues adorn the Belgian soprano SUZANNE DANCO’s records. A fine Mélisande, she is completely at home with Debussy’s Villon and Bilitis; miraculously, she finds nine different shades of rapture for Fauré’s La bonne chanson. I wish she’d been able to display the same delicacy in Bach cantatas, but she’s hampered by Münchinger’s heavy orchestra; free of it, in three pseudo-Bach songs, she loses any stridency. Her arie antiche would rival Souzay’s, if Guido Agosti was as tactful a partner as Jacqueline Bonneau. Such is the Gallic grace of IRMA KOLASSI’s mezzo that you’d never guess she was born in Greece, though she sounds happy to sing the lingo in the Greek songs by Ravel and two lovely arrangements by Sfakianakis (uncredited, a rare omission in Testament’s booklets). I’m not sure why, instead of Kolassi’s Debussy and Chausson, we get monotonous Milhaud and indifferent Aubert; even Fauré’s Chanson d’Éve is an austere 25 minutes, but she conquers its difficulties triumphantly, in better shape than six years later, when she sang the cycle for Radio France, now in INA’s Mémoire Vive series. An INA CD of HUGUES CUÉNOD is the one you want, not Cascavelle’s amateurish effort here, drawn from the radio archives of his native Switzerland. You’d think the company would have sussed that one rarity here, unaccompanied settings of Donne, were composed not by a Mr Rainier Priaulx but by Priaulx Rainier, a woman. At least their spareness helps them survive the ferocious denoising that’s over-applied here. Most enjoyable are two songs by Henri Casadesus, faker of early music, and seven settings by Clérambault of La Fontaine’s fables, perfect for Cuénod’s light tenor and touch. But INA’s better-produced CD shows wider and richer gifts, in a programme ranging from Machaut and Hans Sachs to Brahms and Duparc. The Wigmore Hall recently celebrated Cuénod’s 101st birthday. And Britain also gave honour, if slowly, to our own prophetess of French song, soprano MAGGIE TEYTE (born Tate, in Wolverhampton). A great Mélisande, chosen and coached by Debussy, Teyte hadn’t Souzay’s or Danco’s vocal beauty or ease, but the same imagination, taste and discipline and burning intensity. Her famous 1936 Debussy sessions with Alfred Cortot, all but definitive, have been available before, but never at Naxos’s low price, making everything else on these well-filled discs basically a gift. With a poetic Gerald Moore joining Teyte in Purcell, Quilter, Liszt, Fauré and more, and Leslie Heward conducting her in searing Berlioz, it’s a present you can’t refuse, unless you’re allergic to 78 surface noise (Ward Marston rightly hasn’t tried to over-restore the aged originals) or desperately need the texts (many are on the web, anyway).