Paradis sur Terre: A French songbook

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COMPOSERS: Lili Boulanger; Claude Debussy; André Caplet; Cecile Chaminade
LABELS: Chandos
ALBUM TITLE: Paradis sur Terre: A French songbook
WORKS: L Boulanger: Clairières dans le ciel; Chaminade: Mélodies; Debussy: Trois Mélodies de Verlaine; Caplet: Les Prières
PERFORMER: Nicky Spence (tenor), Malcolm Martineau (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: Chandos CHAN 10893

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Paradise on earth? The title of tenor Nicky Spence’s latest disc presumably refers to the nature of the songs. It is not merely that this intelligent and beguiling exploration of mélodies exemplifies the French compositional traits of light and clarity. Throughout both words and music repeatedly lift the eyes heavenwards. There is also an effective progression from Caplet’s heartfelt prayers, through the intensely sublime love expressed in Lili Boulanger’s cycle Clairières dans le ciel and Debussy’s three Verlaine songs to the unselfconscious joie de vivre in a selection from Chaminade.

Spence’s generally light-voiced approach suits the music well, and, as ever, Malcolm Martineau provides the perfect foil. Caplet’s rarely heard settings, in French, of the Lord’s Prayer, Hail Mary and Apostles’ Creed could easily be mistaken for a devotional scene from an opera. Spence captures their intimate simplicity just as effectively as the extrovert joy of Debussy’s ‘L’échelonnement des haies’ or Chaminade’s ‘L’été’. It is easy to overstate Wagner’s influence on Lili Boulanger’s exquisite 13-song cycle Clairières dans le ciel, but Fauré is at least as important. While strong voiced where necessary, Spence makes much of the cycle an exploration of nuances of fragility, just about avoiding slipping into insecurity. Spence may not quite create paradise on earth, but this is certainly a divinely diverting hour.

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Christopher Dingle