19 June 2014

CD REVIEW: Félix Fourdrain – SONGS (Liliana Górska, mezzo-soprano; Piotr Ejsmont, piano; Acte Préalable AP0323)

CD REVIEW: Félix Fourdrain - SONGS (Acte Préalable AP0323)

FÉLIX FOURDRAIN (1880 – 1923): SongsLiliana Górska, mezzo-soprano; Piotr Ejsmont, piano [Recorded in Studio Nagrań Akademii Muzycznej im. St. Moniuszki, Gdańsk, Poland, in 2013; Acte Préalable AP0323; 1CD, 47:13; Available from Gigant, jpc, Merlin, Presto Classical, major music retailers, and by emailing Acte Préalable]

It can surely be said without hyperbole that today’s inquisitive Lieder singer has more repertoire at his or her disposal than at any other time in the history of Art Song. Still, too few singers look beyond the ‘comfortable’ repertory of Lieder by Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, and a few token composers in the English and French repertories when choosing songs for recitals and recordings. There is no doubting the importance of these composers to the development, refinement, and preservation of Lieder or the legitimacy of singers’ desires to commit their individual interpretations to disc, but who will have the courage to advocate for the overlooked songs of forgotten composers? In the case of the ignored Frenchman Félix Fourdrain, the Polish Acte Préalable label takes up this fascinating composer’s banner and unfurls it thrillingly with this disc of a selection of Fourdrain’s Songs. Every aspect of this recording, expertly produced by Jan A. Jarnicki and engineered by Cezary Joczyn, exudes the preparation and presentation that enable success in any repertory. The great success of this disc is not in its exploration of ignored music, however, but in the undeviating quality of the performances: in this recital of Fourdrain’s Songs, the focus is on making music, not making excuses for the neglect to which these jewels have been subjected.

Even by the standard of his generation, Fourdrain’s time on earth was brief. Born in Nice in 1880, Fourdrain was acclaimed as an organist, having studied at L’École Niedermeyer in Paris with the renowned organist and composer Charles-Marie Widor. Like his younger contemporary Pietro Mascagni, it was the first of Fourdrain’s operas, La légende du point d’Argentan, that was judged his finest work for the theatre and secured his reputation as a composer of opera. Following the 1907 première of La légende du point d’Argentan at the Opéra-Comique, Fourdrain’s subsequent operas were heard in most of Paris’s most prestigious theatres. Fourdrain also studied with Jules Massenet, the influence of whose gift for lyrical melody is apparent in the twenty-one songs on this disc. All but two of the songs offered here are settings of verses by André Alexandre (1860 – 1928), who provided the libretti for two of Reynaldo Hahn’s operatic compositions, and the literary continuity of the texts enabled Fourdrain to focus his talents on uniting his melodic inspirations with organic, often unexpectedly ambiguous accompaniments. Interestingly, though, two of the finest songs in this recital are the pair with words by other poets. Originally paired for publication with the song ‘Vénus’ [not included on this disc], ‘La belle aux yeux d’amour,’ dedicated to the memory of Marguerite Bernède, employs a text by Arthur Bernède (1871 – 1937), librettist of Fourdrain’s La légende du point d’Argentan and Massenet’s Sapho. Fourdrain made compelling use of the repeated couplets ‘Les bois ont des frémissements / Comme en ont les cœurs des amants’ (‘There are in the woods shudders / Just as there are in lovers’ hearts’), wistfully conveying the conjoined trembling of humanity and nature in both the piano and the vocal line. The text of ‘Noël de neige’ is the work of Jean Richepin (1849 – 1926), the poet and dramatist perhaps best remembered now for his liaison with the celebrated actress Sarah Bernhardt. The irony of the text is bitingly enlarged by Fourdrain’s music. The unflaggingly high level of invention that pervades all of the songs on this disc proclaims that Fourdrain’s songs are far more musically substantial than the decorative ‘pièces de salon’ that flowed from the pens of many of his contemporaries.

Perhaps the richness of Fourdrain’s creativity would not be so apparent in performances less fluid, fluent, and impeccably-delivered than those by mezzo-soprano Liliana Górska and pianist Piotr Ejsmont on this disc. Ms. Górska’s voice is an ideal instrument for Fourdrain’s music, the beautiful, bronzed timbre bolstered by an imposing core of iron that permits the singer to cover the emotional spectrum of the songs without over-stretching the voice. The contrasting styles of ‘Les petites communiantes,’ ‘Le papillon,’ ‘Il neige des fleurs,’ ‘Carnaval,’ ‘Le vieux moulin,’ ‘Edelweiss,’ ‘Chanson Norvégienne,’ ‘Lettre d’adieu,’ and the Bernède and Richepin settings are differentiated with charming subtlety by Ms. Górska, and she is unafraid of indulging a judiciously-deployed sentimentality in the most overtly Romantic songs. The exciting, slightly seedy exoticism of ‘Alger le soir’ tingles in Ms. Górska’s singing, and the buzzing brilliance of ‘Les abeilles’ is cunningly evinced without caricature. The quiet japonaiserie of ‘Fleurs de paravent’ gives way in Ms. Górska’s glowing performance to subdued despondency, and the differing passions of ‘Les mouettes’ and ‘Sainte Dorothée’ are portrayed with equal faculty. Ms. Górska’s depiction of the galloping breathlessness of ‘Chevauchée Cosaque’ is thrilling, but she finds precisely the right interpretive attitude for each song. Along the way, she encounters a few phrases that lie awkwardly for her voice, but she noticeably maintains secure intonation and good diction even when the vocal lines are least comfortable. Mr. Ejsmont’s accompaniment gives Ms. Górska canvases on which to recreate the vibrant pictures that Fourdrain drew in music. Sometimes with the lilting sophistication of a Chopin Nocturne and at others with the unfettered virtuosity of a Liszt Étude, Fourdrain’s accompaniments often approach the nuances of the texts from different angles than the vocal lines. Solely as pianism, Mr. Ejsmont’s playing is tremendously impressive, but as a display of collaborative interplay with Ms. Górska it is truly masterful.

Marcel Proust wrote that ‘the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.’ New ears are the vessels that chart unknown musical waters, and this disc of Félix Fourdrain’s Songs gives the listener the artistic equivalent of a cochlear implant. In the liner notes that accompany the disc, Liliana Górska writes that her encounter with Fourdrain’s Songs was an instance of ‘love at first sight,’ a notion easily expressed in words but communicated in sound only with the greatest skill. Each of the twenty-one Songs on this disc is performed with affection and musical mastery that confirm the veracity of the singer’s assertion. The performances on this disc also confirm Fourdrain’s value as a ‘new’ composer of beguiling, invigorating songs. Dziękuję, Acte Préalable! Now, if only other accomplished Lieder singers will take note…