Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Douce France: Chanson from Von Otter and Dessay

Paris in November. Photo via Buttered Bread.
If the persistent grayness of November is getting you down, Gentle Readers, I have a suggested pick-me-up. The end of October saw two new releases of French art song and popular chanson. Anne Sofie von Otter's Douce France is a two-disc bounty of gems from Reynaldo Hahn to Charles Trenet, while Natalie Dessay's Entre elle et lui is a collaboration with Michel Legrand, and an exploration of his oeuvre. While they're very different projects, I think each is remarkably successful in what it sets out to do.

  I could go on for ages about Anne Sofie von Otter's gifts as a singer of art song (as, indeed, I have in the past.) In contrast to her obscenely lush Les nuits d'été, her voice here is clearly that of a mortal being. And Von Otter sings with great vulnerability, employing a conversational style unusual to the art songs, and illuminating. At this point in her career, it could go without saying that Von Otter has an inspired gift for phrasing, and impeccable attention to text, but these are qualities which give constantly new delights, so I'm mentioning them anyway. Her treatment of the Hahn songs on the disc is playful and sensual, with "Le plus beau présent" and "Quand je fus pris au pavilion" as highlights. She is well-partnered by her pianists, with Richard Strauss allusions in the instrumental part in "Puisque j'ai mis ma lèvre" (at least, I think the allusion is to "Cäcilie," if it's not to something more obvious that I've missed.) A refreshingly unhistrionic take on Saint-Saens' "Si vous n'avez à me dire" was poignant. The impressionists were also well represented, with Ravel's "D'Anne jouant de l'espinette" and "Ballade de la reine morte d'aimer," and Debussy's gorgeous Trois chansons de bilitis. The name of composer Charles Martin Loeffler was new to me; Von Otter gave two passionate, winsome selections from his "Four poems for  voice, viola, and piano."

If anything, I liked the disc of chanson even better, as it provides an unusual and welcome combination of a fabulous mezzo with a repertoire which I've loved since I discovered it at the age of fourteen (via my father, in whose day Charles Trenet records were smuggled into dorm rooms and listened to for the racy bits. But I digress.) The great singers and songwriters are represented and creatively interpreted. Von Otter gives beautifully interior readings of Barbara's chansons, and finds more optimism in "Padam, padam" than I would have believed possible. I really enjoyed the lovely reinterpretations of Charles Trenet's songs, from "Douce France" to the utterly delightful "Boum," and a really tender, melancholy "Que reste-t-il de nos amours?" There is good, mellow jazz in "À St. Germain des Prés," and some other new discoveries for me as well, including Jean Lenoir's "Parlez-moi d'amour." This embarras de richesses is currently on sale at Arkiv.

Natalie Dessay's album devoted to the work of Michel Legrand is remarkably multi-facetted; I was previously unaware of both the scope and diversity of the composer's work. The small ensemble of musicians is nicely chosen, but I think the homogeneity of the arrangements does the range of the songs something of a disservice. (I also thought the sound seemed a bit over-produced, but I don't have very good speakers, so flattening may not have been the disc's problem.) n't a bit homogeneously arranged and/or over-produced sound. Dessay was at her best in the French repertoire, but she gave a tender "What are you doing the rest of your life?" I found "Papa, can you hear me?" less successful, but this may be a matter of taste. Legrand's virtuosic work on the piano is one of the great assets of the disc, and the artistic chemistry between the composer and Dessay is great. Dessay performs the Parapluies de Cherbourg duet with her husband Laurent Naouri, which is charming, and the song will always remind me of how much I loved that movie when I was seventeen. (Seriously, I think it's brilliant in its discourses about class and colonialism. I think it can also be read as a critique of patriarchal oppression… but I digress.) The "Chanson des jumelles" from Les Demoiselles de Rochefort was given as a duet with Patricia Petibon, full of exuberance. Other highlights included a smoldering "Le rouge et le noir," a delightfully dizzy "Chanson de Delphine," and an unabashedly sexy take on "Le Cinéma." Below, Dessay and Legrand give "Les Moulins de mon Coeur:"


  1. I keep returning for this photo of Paris in November... Every city looks the same in November or February, there's some odd comfort in that, don't know why...

    1. I am meditating on this with pleasure (and shall continue to do so, no doubt.) Maybe it's simply the leveling of the playing field: even Paris becomes gray.


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