The bucolic Canteloube songs
in Auvergnat dialect and in venerable French
are gems, every one. There is not a single
dud in the set. Ever since the Dubonnet commercial
of the early 1970s they have never been out
of the public's affections. That said, when
did you last hear them in concert? They are
the almost exclusive province of the radio
broadcast and the CD player.
I always think of the singer of these songs as the
goat shepherdess Manon from the film 'Manon des Sources' - wrong geography
for these songs but right spirit. The closest approach to perfection
- in fact sui generis is the two CD set by Natania
Davrath on Vanguard (Vanguard Classics SVC-38/39). Madeleine
Grey's 1930 pioneering recordings are well worth seeking out if
you can accept the vintage sound (Pearl GEM0013). Various big names
have tackled these songs. Of these, Von
Stade (Sony) and Upshaw
(leisurely on Warner ERATO 0927 44656 2) did especially well. Others
including Kiri Te Kanawa flatten these songs like a trodden snail with
an excess of operatic weight. These are, after all, songs of an innocence
and worldliness that is both young and pastoral. There should be no
intrusive sophistication. Gens is good - make absolutely no mistake.
I also liked the engineer's choice to give the diaphanous orchestral
role parity of prominence with the voice. Gens' voice has the slightest
suggestion of plumminess which takes some of the attractive sheen off
this new issue. She is however excellent at getting her lips around
tongue-twisters such as Obal din lou Limouzi (tr. 5) Excerpt
. Her breath control is a thing of wonder in Pastourelle (tr.
Gens and Casadesus are just a little hasty in the Baïlero
- robbing this glorious heat-haze of a song of its full effect.
The wheeze of the village band in Oud 'onoren gorda? (tr. 4)
is faithfully caught by the Lille orchestra. Interesting to hear
that the Delian pulse at the start of Oï ayaï (tr.
The recording gives a jewelled eminence to the orchestral piano. In
the long introduction to Lo delaïssádo there is a
startlingly Finzian plangency to the woodwind parts. Excerpt
The little instrumental 'yawns' in Brezairola register tellingly.
By the look of the recording
dates the team took a lot of time to get the
songs just right. It's just a pity that opportunity
was not taken to put more songs on the disc.
This is a very good economical
single disc version of 21 of the Auvergne
songs. They are well sung and the orchestral
role is given the attention its attractions
clamantly demand. The picture is completed
by Naxos’s decision to print full sung texts
and parallel translations into English.
Speaking of which, the last
song ends with a vengeful Housman-like touch
when the girl speaks of faithless Pierre who
steals hearts and breaks them. The girl sings
with feeling of her heart stolen by Pierre.
No sighs here, however: to startling donkey
brays from the orchestra she sings
'If you ever do that again / Give that trouble
/ I will take my knife /And skin you alive.'
And I think she means it Pierre!
(RECORDING OF THE MONTH)
Véronique Gens has
easily one of the most exquisite voices in
the business today; moreover anything she
does is uncommonly intelligent and musically
informed. With this recording Naxos enters
the echelons of upmarket performances. In
this material, Gens outclasses Kiri te Kanawa
in terms of vocal beauty and is in an altogether
different league interpretatively. She is
even a match for the venerable recording made
by the late Victoria de los Angeles. Indeed,
she may even have an edge over her competitors,
for Gens is a native of the Auvergne. She
would have grown up well aware of the history
and traditions of regional culture. I have
no idea whether she speaks the dialect, but
her way with these texts is natural and instinctive.
In our age of cultural homogeneity, it's hard to appreciate
what regional identity meant in an earlier age, and how important it
was. Canteloube was called "le bard d'Auvergne" because he
was passionately involved in preserving the folklore and music of his
native land. At the turn of the century many composers returned to folk
idiom for inspiration – Vaughan Williams, for example – but Canteloube
was himself a genuine man of the people, so to speak, who had grown
up in the countryside. When he went to farms and villages to collect
folk music, he could communicate as an equal, without condescension.
His music therefore has a particularly vivid, exotic feel to it. There
are echoes of a musical tradition outside the mainstream, shaped by
the mountainous isolation of many parts of the Auvergne. Many of Canteloube's
songs are also informed by "medieval" music, and the romance
of the troubadour tradition. The Trois Bourrées could
have stepped out from a medieval fair. This is yet another reason why
Gens carries this music off with such verve; her background is in early
music and the baroque. She approaches songs like Lou bousu and
Malurous qu'o uno fenno with vigour, understanding the earthy
nature of pre-modern music. Extract
These songs are not technically challenging, but they need to be sung
without affectation or condescension.
Casadesus conducts with great
flair, making the most of the flamboyant gestures
and joyful rhythms. The orchestra is very
focused and expressive. Special mention too
should be made of soloists like the horn player
in La delaïssádo and the
pianist in Passo pel Prat. This recording
is so distinctive that I've little doubt it
will be the definitive Chants d'Auvergne
for many years to come. Gens raises Naxos's
artistic image by her brilliance, and this
recording will sell, and sell, and sell ......