I am delighted with this release, definitely one for lovers of French song and notable singing. Nicky Spence’s choice of music is as rare as it is enjoyable. Opening with the mysteries and moonbeam harmonies of André Caplet’s Les Prières (Prayers), written during World War One, the composer personally affected, gassed, by taking part in the battle for Verdun, these settings are enigmatic, the first two ending questioningly, the final one more optimistic, and all are very poignant. They would pass for the work of Debussy, represented here by Trois Mélodies de Verlaine, suggestive if ambiguous in both words and music, the latter closely observed in composition to give much from little. The selection of individual songs by Cécile Chaminade (1857-1944), all from the early 1890s, offer something more up-front, as if from the salon, and exude a sauciness worthy of Offenbach as well as gracious lyricism; witty and charming sums up this sextet of settings, and there is also a greater depth of expressiveness when required.
The biggie work on this Chandos release is by the short-lived and multi-talented Lili Boulanger (1893-1918), the younger sister of the equally gifted and influential Nadia (1887-1979); musically blest siblings with very different fates. What would Lili have gone on to achieve had she not been taken so tragically by illness? We’ll never know of course, but this thirteen-song-cycle completed in 1914, and the handful of other pieces she was able to write, more than suggest a glittering career. There is but one poet here, Francis Jammes, and the settings are exquisite – eloquent and searching if without breaking musical barriers if no-less personal for that. The Frenchness of the music, pastel-shaded and voluptuous, is evident throughout, and comes across as instinctive rather than trained yet resourced with a gift for refinement and illustration.
Nicky Spence is a sympathetic guide to this repertoire, loving the words as much as the music, although he can be a little stentorian at times, but I wouldn’t want to deny his passion, and there is much sensitivity too, and if Malcolm Martineau’s piano is a little reticent sometimes, as recorded, he is always in touch with the singer as well as bringing much personality to the notes that are blanc et noir, some of Chaminade’s writing offers him quite a workout. The booklet includes a good intro to the composers and these settings, and also, vitally, the pages contain all the French words and English translations.