We remember him best for his operas, especially Faust, but Charles Gounod (1818-1893) was a surprisingly fecund song composer. It would require a further five volumes to house his complete output for voice and piano, 150-odd mélodies that range, as this collection confirms, from the insipid (‘Ce que je suis sans toi’, ‘Je ne puis espérer’) to the inspired (‘À une jeune Grecque’, ‘Primavera’).
Given a strong text to work from, Gounod was capable of formidable word-colouring and fervent emotional conviction. No song demonstrates this more richly than ‘Venise’, a setting of Alfred de Musset’s elegant evocation of the Serenissima that flows gently and laps at the banks in a restrained yet haunting piano accompaniment that Jeff Cohen render s with a deliciously pictorial sensibility. Tassis Christoyannis’s characterful baritone, not so much mellifluous as lived-in and alive to drama, expresses rather than illustrates the charms as “La Vanina rêveuse” (Vanina, a dreamer, sings as she passes by in her floating cradle).
The most instantly recognisable song here is Victor Hugo’s lilting ‘Sérénade’, a setting that suits the singer admirably apart from its melismatic runs, few of which allow us to hear every note that Gounod wrote. Nevertheless, Christoyannis’s unapologetic vocal masculinity is moving as he studies his beloved and urges her to sleep on, “calme et pure”.
One quality Christoyannis lacks is an ability to smile through the music. Lugubrious singing, however polished, only half-serves sunny songs like ‘Où voulez-vous aller?’ and ‘Au printemps’, compositions whose inherent joy is left to Cohen’s eloquent hands. Furthermore, Gounod’s three English-language settings – Byron’s ‘Maid of Athens’, Shelley’s ‘Good Night’ and George Wither’s ‘Sweet baby, sleep’ – are far more thickly accentuated by the native Greek singer than his well-enunciated French. Yet he remains a genial guide through some unfamiliar repertoire and brings tenderness and charm to even the most cloying of texts.
For a composer with a tunesmith’s reputation, it’s surprising how often Gounod’s piano elaborations surpass his melodic inspiration. Take the aforementioned Shelley setting: it underpins a banal tune with an accompaniment of Schubertian grace that draws playing of sheer enchantment from Cohen. Yet there are some magnificent melodies too, none greater than a devastating setting of Gautier’s ‘La Chanson du pêcheur’ that delivers an overwhelming blend of words, music and emotional depth. Singer and pianist find profundity in every aching beat.
Full texts and translations are included in the booklet.