GABRIEL FAURÉ (1845 – 1924), MANUEL DE FALLA (1876 – 1946), MAURICE RAVEL (1875 – 1937), FRANCIS POULENC (1899 – 1963), and XAVIER MONTSALVATGE (1912 – 2002): Après un rêve – French and Spanish Art Songs—Guzmán Hernando, tenor; Aurelio Viribay, piano [Recorded in November 2012 in Cezanne Studios, Madrid, Spain; Cezanne Producciones CZ014; 1 CD, 72:06; Available from La Quinta de Mahler (España), Amazon, CD Baby, Google Play, and iTunes]
Whether performed before an audience or studio microphones, an Art Song recital should educate, enlighten, and entertain. A thoughtfully-sung Lied, chanson, or canción should transport the listener to the banks of the Rhine, the boulevards of Paris, or a dusty plaza de toros, the fusion of music and text unlocking unexplored regions of the imaginations of both performers and audiences. This is a lofty goal, one that often no longer seems practical, but when the state of Art Song on disc seems most imperiled a disc like Après un rêve restores faith in both the potency and perseverance of Song. Taking on an ambitious selection of songs by Gabriel Fauré, Manuel de Falla, Maurice Ravel, Francis Poulenc, and Xavier Montsalvatge, tenor Guzmán Hernando and pianist Aurelio Viribay hold nothing back in their collaborative journey through piquant harmonies and melodies that alternately throb with emotional intensity and insouciantly flirt with the senses. There are no shortages of well-trained singers and pianists today, and there are pretty Lieder recordings released one after another. Nonetheless, important recordings of Song repertory are no more plentiful now than when Alexander Kipnis recorded Brahms’s Vier ernste Gesänge or Hans Hotter recorded Schubert’s Winterreise. Après un rêve is an important disc. It is unusual to be educated, enlightened, and entertained by an Art Song recording, but Après un rêve beguiles the ears, enraptures the heart, and brings the mind nearer to the composers’ most personal creative impulses.
Integral to the tremendous success of this disc is the playing of Mr. Viribay, whose flawlessly attentive support enables Mr. Hernando not only to interact with the nuances of each text on a profound level but also to cast aside concerns about ensemble and follow where his interpretive sensibilities lead. The Gallic sophistication that Mr. Viribay exhibits in his playing of the selections by Fauré, Ravel, and Poulenc is touched by an understated melancholy that highlights the darker colorations that coruscate in Mr. Hernando’s nacreous singing. A native Spaniard’s mastery of music by de Falla and Montsalvatge is not surprising, but Mr. Viribay’s commands of the evocative rhythmic figurations of de Falla’s Siete canciones populares españolas and the distinctive harmonies of Montsalvatge’s Cinco canciones negras are shaped by something deeper than musical compatriotism. His flexible but forceful management of de Falla’s cadences places the Siete canciones populares españolas both in the caves of the Camino del Sacromonte and in the cosmopolitan salons of fin-de-siècle Barcelona and Madrid, and the gritty textures of the Cinco canciones negras are hewn with a sharp musical chisel that unleashes the brooding savagery of the texts. Mr. Viribay neither unimaginatively follows his musical partner nor aggressively leads him: rather, he and Mr. Hernando approach these songs as though performing chamber music. Mr. Viribay’s playing is as attentive to the twists and turns of text and mood as is Mr. Hernando’s unfailingly beautiful singing.
The song that gives the disc its title is one of Fauré’s most familiar creations, and Mr. Hernando sings it with an inviting combination of interpretive warmth and vocal coolness. ‘Tristesse,’ a setting of a superb text by Théophile Gautier, is delivered with understated languidness by both singer and pianist, and Fauré’s unflappable elegance is highlighted by Mr. Hernando’s satiny voicing of ‘Les Berceaux.’ ‘Prison’ and ‘Mandoline’ benefit from texts by Paul Verlaine: in this performance, the great poet’s words and the composer’s ever-evolving melodies glisten in the musical moonlight of Mr. Hernando’s singing.
Now a century old, de Falla’s Siete canciones populares españolas are among the most widely-known Spanish compositions for voice. Still, despite espousal by Gérard Souzay and José Carreras, it is unusual to hear them sung by a male singer, and Mr. Hernando’s delicate but stirringly masculine timbre establishes an atmosphere in the canciones that is quite different from the sound worlds conjured in recorded performances by Victoria de los Ángeles, Teresa Berganza, Marilyn Horne, Joyce DiDonato, and Ailyn Pérez. Mr. Hernando’s cantorial timbre gives ‘El paño moruno’ an aptly Moorish sensibility, and ‘Seguidilla murciana’ is characterized by razor-sharp rhythmic precision from voice and keyboard. The distinctive harmonies of ‘Asturiana’ are realized with special fervor owing to Mr. Hernando’s reliably solid intonation. His accounts of ‘Jota’ and ‘Nana’ simmer with the aural representation of the earthy, quintessentially Spanish aroma of pimentón, but there is a compelling subtlety coursing beneath the surface of these interpretations of ‘Canción’ and ‘Polo.’ In the hands of many singers, the Siete canciones populares españolas are souvenirs of the ‘tourist’ Spain of cheap plastic castanets and mass-produced mantillas: revealingly, Mr. Hernando and Mr. Viribay treat them as the songs that Spaniards sing as they go about the business of their everyday lives.
The charms of Ravel’s Histoires naturelles, using texts by Pierre-Jules Renard, have never been more apparent than in the performances on this disc. Not even Souzay, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, or the brilliant Régine Crespin dove as deeply into the poetic waters of Ravel’s music and Renard’s texts: among recorded interpreters, only Jan DeGaetani rivals Mr. Hernando’s thoughtful traversal of Histoires naturelles. The pride tinged with regret evinced in ‘Le paon’ gushes from Mr. Hernando’s polished but edgy vocalism, and his alert singing of ‘Le grillon’ is complemented wonderfully by the chirruping virtuosity of Mr. Viribay’s playing. The urbane refinement of their account of ‘Le cygne’ is expected, but the humanity that they extract from the clever interplays of melody and harmony in ‘Le martin-pêcheur’ and ‘La pintade’ is extraordinary. This is a reading that reveals new facets of these sparkling songs.
It is frustrating that a poet as gifted as Paul Éluard remains more renowned outside of France for his wife—the infamous Gala, who eventually married Salvador Dalí—than for his own work. In an artistic utopia, Tel jour, telle nuit, Poulenc’s cycle using texts by Éluard, would contribute mightily to the restoration of the poet’s worldwide literary reputation. Few composers ever dealt with French texts as insightfully as Poulenc, and his sly manipulations of Éluard’s verses are as meaningfully layered as his Cocteau settings. The essence of Poulenc’s mastery of Art Song is simplicity, and both Mr. Hernando and Mr. Viribay look solely to the music for the cornerstones of their interpretations of these songs. They mine the lodes of feeling in ‘Bonne journée,’ ‘Une ruine coquille vide,’ and ‘Le front comme un drapeau perdu’ with explorers’ sense of adventure, and the forthright, unexaggerated sentiments of ‘Une roulotte couverte en tuiles,’ ‘À toutes brides,’ and ‘Une herbe pauvre’ receive from Mr. Hernando singing stripped of all artifice. He caresses Poulenc’s vocal lines in ‘Je n'ai envie que de t'aimer’ and pours out a stream of granitic tone in ‘Figure de force brûlante et farouche.’ There is no finer recorded example of Poulenc’s vocal music than Mr. Hernando’s and Mr. Viribay’s performance of ‘Nous avons fait la nuit,’ in which the significance of every note and word is meticulously assessed and rendered accordingly.
Some of the imagery in the texts of Montsalvatge’s Cinco canciones negras is perhaps uncomfortable for modern listeners, but the composer’s music deserves to be heard far more frequently than it is, especially beyond the borders of Spain—and to be heard as it is performed on this disc. The starkness of the texts does not preclude flashes of humor from both artists. Mr. Viribay’s spirited playing of ‘Cuba dentre de un piano’ enhances Mr. Hernando’s singing, and they unite their talents in splendidly animated performances of ‘Punto de Habanera’ and ‘Chevere.’ The concluding ‘Canción de cuna para dormir a un negrito’ and ‘Canto negro’ are songs as fine as any composed in any language, but the comfort with Montsalvatge’s idiom showcased in Mr. Hernando’s sweetly resonant singing makes his presentation of the songs a luxuriously unique experience.
Après un rêve is a disc in which poetry and music interact in explosive collisions of passion and pageantry, but what makes it an exceptionally valuable recording is the quality of the music-making. The line ‘Je te soutiens de toutes mes forces’ from Poulenc’s and Éluard’s ‘Nous avons fait la nuit’ is an ideal description of the collaboration between Guzmán Hernando and Aurelio Viribay that makes Après un rêve so moving: each gentleman supports the other with every atom of his artistic constitution. The molecules that these artists form in their navigations of the songs of Fauré, de Falla, Ravel, Poulenc, and Montsalvatge expand in every phrase to metamorphose the elemental energy of song into a kinetic intimacy between music and listener.