BARRAUD Impromptus. Trois lettres de Mme de Sévigné. Chantefables. Trois poèmes de Pierre Reverdy. Chanson de Gramadoch. Quatre mélodies

by Walter Simmons

BARRAUD Impromptus. Trois lettres de Mme de Sévigné. Chantefables. Trois poèmes de Pierre Reverdy. Chanson de Gramadoch. Quatre mélodies ● Nicolas Kruger (pn); Salomé Haller (sop); Christophe Crapez (ten); Didier Henry (bar) ● MAGUELONE MAG 111.178 (enhanced CD, 61:30)

I have had recordings of major works—symphonies, an oratorio, et al.—by Henry Barraud (1900-1997) for many years. These works have led me to the conclusion that Barraud was one of the foremost French symphonic composers of the 20th century. From the standpoint of context, he was a near-contemporary of Francis Poulenc, but lacked that composer’s inclinations in the direction of wit and irony. Poulenc’s music may be more distinctive, but Barraud’s often has more substance and depth. He is seen more accurately as a descendent of the robust, serious-toned music of Florent Schmitt, Louis Aubert, and, perhaps, Arthur Honegger. During his lifetime Barraud was an important figure in French musical life, as a member of various composer’s organizations but, most notably, as director of the ORTF for many years. Hence I have long been dismayed that none of his major works (and only a few minor ones) have ever appeared on compact disc. So when I discovered this new release, which features the composer’s grandson as pianist (and annotator) in the performance of six Impromptus for piano and five song cycles, I was excited to get hold of it, even if these aren’t the large orchestral works I might have preferred.

Having acquainted myself with the disc, I find myself a little disappointed—not by the music or the performances, but by the presentation. Yes, of course it would have been nice to have some major orchestral works, but I know that economic factors are often prohibitive. And the music here is all first-rate, if less ambitious in its scope. The six Impromptus are very well-wrought essays in a familiar post-Debussian idiom. However, if one selects No. 3, one will have a taste of the kind of emotional depth of which Barraud was capable. But the biggest disappointment involves production values. As pianist, Nicolas Kruger provides fine, tasteful performances.

But his essay, presented in French and English, is quite brief and discusses only the Impromptus. Although there is plenty of information about the featured soloists, there is no information whatsoever regarding the song cycles that comprise the majority of the recording. The sung texts may be accessed by placing the CD into the disk drive of a PC, but they are in French only. And, as I discovered after several hours of fruitless research, information about the texts is not readily available, especially in English, and translations seem to be non-existent. Perhaps the French feel that any cultivated aesthete ought to be fluent in their language, but times have changed, and this is no longer to be taken for granted. And your reviewer is one of those who does not boast such fluency. Perhaps this deficiency should have disqualified me from reviewing the disc, but I wanted the opportunity to advocate on behalf of the composer. But it will unfortunately limit the specificity and depth of my own comments on songs that are clearly closely tailored to their texts.

The earliest—and perhaps the most challenging songs to appreciate—are the Trois poèmes de Pierre Reverdy, which date from 1933. They are sung by tenor Christophe Crapez, who brings an attractive voice and fine artistry to his renditions. These songs are inward in tone, with music that is rather angular and relatively austere; the last, “Un homme fini,” is especially compelling. Next in chronology are the Chansons de Gramadoch, set to Victor Hugo texts in 1935. These, sung sensitively by baritone Didier Henry, seem to refer back to an “olden” style with simpler, lighter textures. Trois lettres de Mme de Sévigné date from 1938, and feature soprano Salomé Haller. All three of these settings are excellent—the second, in particular, is almost a French “patter-song” with a slightly Eastern-European flavor, providing a considerable challenge to soprano Salomé Haller, who acquits herself with grace and aplomb. Quatre mélodies were composed in 1942, to poems by Lanza del Vasto, and feature baritone Didier Henry, who again proves himself a persuasive advocate. These are powerful, penetrating songs, not unlike the late songs of Samuel Barber. The latest group comprises Huit Chantefables pour les enfants sages, composed in 1947, and they appear to be Barraud’s best known song cycle. Animal fables, they are based on witty, satirical verses by Robert Desnos. All three vocal soloists contribute to this group. Unlike the serious, introspective musical expression found in most of the other songs, these are generally light-hearted and clever. “L’Aligator” even comes close to paraphrasing Gershwin.

Listeners fluent in French and well-versed in French literature will probably derive a deeper appreciation of these songs than I did, and I believe that those who value the French mèlodie will be quite impressed if they are unfamiliar with Barraud’s contributions to the genre. As noted, the performances are excellent, although I found the sonic balance between voice and piano to place the latter too far in the background. This new release appears to be directed chiefly toward the French market, which is a pity, as Barraud was a composer of international stature. From my own perspective, despite my linguistic limitations, I found all the music on this CD to be exquisitely subtle, masterly, and rewarding on a variety of different levels. My wish is now for a recording of some of Barraud’s larger, more ambitious scores.