The first release in a companion series to its Poulenc Song edition, again with Malcolm Martineau presiding, Signum’s Fauré collection feels curiously like a sampler. Not only does Volume One of the projected four-disc series lack much sense of a planned recital (beyond opening with Opus 1 and closing with the relatively late Opus 106), it also divvies up the chosen spoils between an oddly-assorted clutch of anglophone singers, split by gender between female artists of long experience and young male stars.
This Fauré survey needs something special to compete with Hyperion’s rival set (recorded a decade ago in the same church), and in the cool, eloquent baritone of John Chest it has it. Throughout his modest allowance of half-a-dozen Songs, the American repeatedly hits the sweet spot until you’re left wondering quite how many sweet spots one voice can possess. If you hear nothing else from this release, listen to the artistry with which Chest sings ‘Les Matelots’ and the cycle Poème d’un jour.
Other highlights include two moments of near-perfection from Iestyn Davies: the Hahn-like ‘Lydia’, whose courtly mood suits a countertenor particularly well, and ‘Tristesse’, an extraordinary mélodie in which sensuality and loneliness commingle in a voice suffused with regret. Likewise, Ben Johnson’s sublime account of ‘Nell’ is a jewel that makes one anxious to hear more from these three gentlemen in later volumes.
It is less easy to enthuse about the ‘Chanson du pêcheur’, a desolate lament that would have suited Davies down to the ground but which Nigel Cliffe attacks with a growl, while at a higher register some of the female voices (Janis Kelly in ‘Fleur jetée’; Lorna Anderson in ‘Arpège’) share a tendency to become either metallic or frayed under pressure. Even Ann Murray, who dominates proceedings with immense style and technical flair, has moments of discomfort, for example in the legato challenges of ‘C’est l’extase’. The other four mélodies of the ‘de Venise’ cycle, though, are among the disc’s moments forts, especially ‘Mandoline’ and ‘En sourdine’, and the mezzo also imbues ‘Mai’, ‘Clair de lune’ and the recently unearthed ‘Vocalise No.29’ with superb aural colours.
Another outstanding artist, Joan Rodgers, closes proceedings in bill-topping fashion with Le Jardin clos, and it would be hard to imagine a more companionable or characterful guide to this eight-number florilegium. With a smoky, almost jazzy timbre spiced by the lightest dusting of vibrato, she refreshes the ear with the panache of a storyteller.
The last word here, though, belongs to Malcolm Martineau. Make that five words: collaborative, sensitive, virtuosic, insightful, indefatigable. Fauré makes insistent use of arpeggios in his accompaniments, but has anyone made these sing more eloquently? The pianist’s fingers dance across ‘Le papillon et la fleur’ as though it were one of Satie’s cabaret songs; they ripple gently beneath ‘Rencontre’, heat up the febrile clusters of ‘Toujours!’ and find reams of expression in the pared-back writing of Le Jardin clos. Martineau is a pure and faithful interpreter of Fauré, and Signum’s secret weapon. The booklet includes texts and translations.