by Walter Simmons
CHAUSSON: Poème de l’amour et de la mer; Chanson perpétuelle; Cinq melodies. Jessye Norman, soprano; Monte Carlo Philharmonic String Quartet; Michel Dalberto, piano; Philharmonic Orchestra of Monte Carlo conducted by Armin Jordan. ERATO NUM-75059 (digital), produced by Pierre Lavoix.
Ernest Chausson’s small but distinguished output is being explored increasingly by today’s celebrated performers. Not long ago, he was viewed as a fastidious bourgeois epigone of Franck, and one whose place in the repertoire was held only by the Poème for violin and orchestra, a piece often dismissed as bloated salon sentimentality. However, as Harry Halbreich observes in his astute liner notes, Chausson is recognized today as one of the most important figures in French Romanticism, not only as a stylistic link between Franck and Debussy, one might add, but also as the possessor of an individual creative personality that reveals a profound inner conflict between an intensely emotional nature and a patrician sense of modesty. Indeed, the violin Poème itself is a masterpiece of elegiac dignity, eloquently presenting the aesthetic core of Chausson’s art (if somewhat trivialized by overexposure, placement in trite program contexts, and shallow performances).
One of the major compositions of Chausson to gain attention during the past several years is the Poème de l’amour et de la mer, a two-part vocal work lasting about half an hour. Completed in 1892, the Poème describes the prototypical summer romance—its momentary taste of ecstasy, which passes and cannot be rekindled—from the familiar fin de siecle pose of retrospective melancholia. It is a testament to Chausson’s acute artistry that this time-worn conceit is conveyed with such touching conviction. A strong melodic contour soars through the billowing waves of chromaticism, providing the focus and stability often missing from lesser works of this kind.
In evaluating this new recording, which features soprano Jessye Norman with the Philharmonic Orchestra of Monte Carlo, one calls for comparison several available alternatives, all extremely good (see Fanfare 11:2, pp. 43-44). One might summarize their qualities as follows: The performance by Victoria de los Angeles (Angel S-36897) is warm, limpid, and intimately projected, but perhaps insufficiently varied in tone color; the one by Montserrat Caballé (Peters PLE 021) is equally warm, but richer and more powerful, yet somewhat short on subtlety and nuance; Janet Baker’s (Angel S-37401) displays her unerring intelligence, sensitivity to nuance, and expression of textual meaning, but reveals the shortage of sheer sensuous power and richness in her voice—a weakness that becomes particularly noticeable in a work like this, and in company like this. However, after listening to Jessye Norman’s recording, I must conclude that she simply takes all prizes. Displaying a gorgeous sound, magnificent artistry, a broad range of color and expression, as well as sensitivity to text, she offers the best performance of this work that I have ever heard. And, surprisingly enough, the orchestra, under Armin Jordan’s sensitive direction, provides a flexible, richly balanced accompaniment that rivals even that of the London Symphony on the Baker disc.
In addition to this splendid performance, the disc also contains the only recording currently available in the U.S. of Chausson’s Chanson perpétuelle, a seven-minute song accompanied by piano quintet. One of the composer’s last works, it again depicts a situation of torrid love abruptly terminated, but expressed now with an increased concentration of poignant intensity, placing it among the composer’s three or four greatest compositions, along with the Concert in D and the opera Le Roi Arthus (now available on MRF 179-S). Janet Baker’s erstwhile recording of Chanson perpétuelle (L’Oiseau-Lyre S-298) was awfully close to perfection, partly because its greater demands for verbal nuance and subtlety of expression in an intimate context were ideally suited to her gifts, so that I find it impossible to prefer any performance to that one. But Jessye Norman’s new rendition is gorgeous on its own terms (and Baker’s is no longer available in this country).
The additional inclusion of five melodies from Chausson’s Op. 2 group is nice, although these early songs are among his weakest; later melodies are more interesting. Sound quality of this Erato disc does full justice to the opulence of the music and the magnificence of the performances.