We music reviewers have to come up with an unceasing flow of fanciful language to describe the indescribable. On first listening to Chanson D’Amour, operatic soprano Sabine Devieilhe and pianist Alexandre Tharaud‘s new album of 19th and 20th-century French chansons, I perceived Devieilhe’s tone as “opulent” and “celestial.” But what you imagine when you read that may be completely different from the actual voice I’m listening to.
How about this one, which occurred to me on my second listen: “silver fluidity with a hint of musk.” Does that really describe a voice? Does it sound more like a wine? We could play this game all day.
Phraseology aside, I hope you will take my word that Devieilhe’s vocal quality and interpretive sensibility suit these songs marvelously well, whether it’s Fauré’s grave melodicism, Debussy’s gossamer textures and fringe weirdness, Ravel’s hypnotic mysteries and childlike play, or Poulenc’s lighthearted colors.
For his part, Tharaud displays rhythmic subtlety and dynamic confidence throughout the set, giving the piano accompaniments the exquisite precision of character and tone that they deserve. Pianist and singer move together flawlessly through the 29 selections no matter the tempo or mood.
The program mingles works by the four composers in an order determined partly, perhaps, by the themes of the songs. But there’s no need to understand the French or read the English translation (supplied in the booklet, along with German and the original) to appreciate that the album works as a song cycle. Though each composer has recognizable tendencies and tropes, it’s not hard to relax one’s understanding and perceive the pieces – even those by Debussy – as conceived by a single fecund imagination.
It helps that both musicians deploy consistently masterful control as well as mature, knowing lyrical intelligence. Taken as a whole, the set is a beautiful evocation of the musical zeitgeist of a certain time and place, realized through some of the most elegant and sweet writing ever to come out of France, and nurtured resplendently to life by two artists who have clearly taken this music deeply to heart.
It’s also possible, and interesting, to find continuities between the songs of this time and “art” songs from later in the 20th century (think Jacques Brel).
I especially appreciate the inclusion of some relatively early works by Fauré, whose teaching either literally or symbolically stands behind the work of the other composers, and who could pack more subtle beauty into short works than just about anybody.
But listen straight through at least once without looking at who wrote what, and the album will transport you. To France perhaps – and surely to someplace that words can’t describe. Whether you detect a hint of musk is up to you.
Chanson D’Amour is available now in multiple formats on the French-focused Erato label.