Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Douce France - Anne Sofie von Otter

Douce France - Anne Sofie von Otter; naive V5343
This new disc from Anne Sofie von Otter is a delightful combination of contrasts, on the first CD she performs melodies from the golden age of French song-writing (1885 - 1914), and then on the second disc she performs French chansons from a slightly later period. The genres are, of course, linked with many composers of melodies such as Satie and Poulenc writing chansons. What the two genres have in common is that both were designed for performance in small spaces, the chanson in the cabarets and cafe-concerts of Monmatres, the melodies in the famous artistic salons.

On the first disc Von Otter and Bengt Forsberg perform a selection of melodies by Reynaldo Hahn. Camille Saint-Saens, Gabriel Faure, Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy and Charles Martin Loeffler. On the second disc we have Von Otter and Forsberg joined by a large group of instrumentalists for chansons by Barbara, Norbert Glanzberg, Leo Ferre, Francis Lemarque, Mano Hadjidakis, Michel Legrand, Joseph Kosma, Leo Chauliac, Charles Trenet, Georges Moustaki, Reynaldo Hahn, Louiguy, Marguerite Monnot and Jean Lenoir. The result sounds quite eclectic, but thanks to the idiomatic and imaginative arrangements the disc works and provides a lovely complement to the melodies.

Von Otter and Forsberg open with Reynaldo Hahn's L'Heure exquise and Le plus beau presentL'Heure exquise comes from Hahn's Verlaine settings Chansons grise (1887-90), whilst Le plus beau present (1917) is one of Hahn's exercises in evoking olden style, the music of the Renaissance or Baroque era.

Von Otter sings in a confiding, intimate tone, giving the songs a nicely relaxed feel. There is no question here of large-scale performances for the concert hall, she sings with a lovely thread of voice. In Le plus beau present Hahn's elegant melody is sung with great poise.

Camille Saint-Saens wrote a great many songs, though he is not well known as a songwriter. Claire de lune sets a text by Catulle Mendes based on Heine. The piano part has a lovely rocking motion with Saint-Saens conjuring some gorgeous textures, all given a sense of lightness. In Si voice n'avez rien a me dire (1870), Saint-Saens sets Victor Hugo.  Von Otter and Forsberg create a fragile performance, Von Otter singing on  thread of sound and Forsberg providing a transparent accompaniment. This builds into real passion as the song develops. Finally, Vogue, vogue la galere (c1877) which includes a harmonium part (played by Bjorn Gafvert). A floated vocal line over a flowing accompaniment; this is one of the few songs where Von Otter's voice sounds as if it is coming under pressure.

Von Otter and Forsberg return to Hahn for the next three songs. Quand je fus pris au pavilion (setting Charles D'Orleans, from Douze Rondels 1897-1898) is another of Hahn's delightful exercises a l'antique; both Forsberg's playing and Von Otter's crisp pointing of the music bring this out and evoke echoes of Von Otter's own performances in early music. Puisque  j'ai mis ma levre (setting Victor Hugo, 1896) is perhaps more complex, the vocal line is still lovely but Hahn does not quite give us what we expect. Finally Cimitiere de Campagne (setting Gabriel Vicaire, 1893), an enchanting song whose barcarolle like texture belies the subject matter, still in Von Otter and Forsberg's hands it is enchanting.

Gabriel Faure's Le Secret (c 1880) setting Armand Silvestre, a poet whose work Faure favoured. This is a different sound world to the Hahn, calm and slow but more intense. Von Otter shapes the long lines beautifully and shows nice control over the long space of the song.

They follow this sole example from Faure with a group from Maurice Ravel. D'Anne jouant de l'espinette (setting Clement Marot, 1896) was originally intended to have harpsichord accompaniment, and again we get a sense of the antique style. Von Otter brings out the subtle charm of the piece, giving it great character whilst singing on just a thread of sound. By contrast Ballade de la reine morte de l'amour (setting Roland de Mares, c1893) is all poise and calm with a lovely transparency to the high piano accompaniment, giving the whole song a fascinating texture.

Claude Debussy wrote his Chansons de Bilitis in 1897-98 setting texts by Pierre Louys from 1894. The influence of Pelleas et Melisande hangs over these songs, and you feel that they could be sung by Melisande, but a Melisande grown a little older. La Flute de Pan starts with a poised introduction from Forsberg, before Von Otter enters with a sense of gentle exoticism, with lovely calm poetry. La Chevelure is sung with a finely relaxed but controlled ton, it is not luxurious, but seductive and inviting. Finally Le Tombeau des Naiades is completely hypnotic, with intensely surpressed passion.

For the next two numbers we have something of a novelty. Charles Martin Loeffler (1861 - 1935) was born in Berlin but studied in Paris before moving to the USA where, from 1882 to 1903 he was leader and assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Both the songs here, La Cloche felee and Serenade were premiered in Boston in 1897, they have an obligato viola part here played by Antoine Tamestit. Listening to Loeffler's music various influences come to mind, notably Liszt and Busoni. The music is complex and interestingly multilayered. La Cloche felee starts with a lovely sinuous viola line, the song is richer and more languid than some on the disc, but full of exotic passion. Serenade continues these influences and is profoundly beautiful, with a hint of popular melody in the vocal.

Finally they perform Saint-Saens Danse Macabre in which Forsberg has added a viola part based on the solo violin in Saint-Saens orchestral version. The result is a complete delight, the performance vividly brilliant.

For the second disc, Von Otter and Forsberg are joined by a whole array of musicians, including Bengan Janson on accordian, with most of the songs being performed in arrangements by Per Ekdal (who plays percussion). There is a nicely different atmosphere to this disc, with the arrangements evoking the cabare/cafe concerts nature of the original performances.

They open with Gottingen by Barbara a lyrical ballad which Von Otter sings with a nicely kept sense of line, but a very intimate, and very confiding tone. This is a complete delight, as are all of the songs on the disc. Next comes Padam Padam by Norbert Glanzberg (1910 - 2001) who was initially a conductor and composer of little-known classical piece. Padam Padam is an entrancing French waltz given a very idiomatic arrangement complete with accordion.  Leo Ferre's A Saint-Germain-des Pres is much jazzier, with some lovely smoky vocals from Von Otter. In fact Ferre was a boy soprano in the children's choir Monaco and met Maurice Ravel during rehearsal s for L'enfant et les sortileges in 1925.

In all the performances, both Von Otter's performance and the arrangement sounds completely natural and certainly Von Otter never comes over as an opera singer trying too hard.

Barbara's Quel joli temps (Septembre) is a slow waltz, her given a more discreet solo piano accompaniment. A Paris by Francis Lemarque is a lovely infectious piece, here with accordion and bass accompaniment, and Von Otter makes the words as important as the tune. For Mano Hadjidakis's Le Facteur Von Otter is joined by the soprano voice of Margaret Bengtson (who also plays the harp) combined with Mats Bergstroms acoustic guitar to make something hauntingly beautiful.

Michel Legrand actually trained at the Paris Conservatoire and with Nadia Boulanger. For his Chanson des Jumelles Von Otter is once again joined by Bengtson, a duet with a strong flavour of the Hot Club of France in the air, and some great scat singing towards the end of the song. Legrand's Je vivrai sans toi is a slow smoky number with just piano accompaniment form Carl Bagge.

Joseph Kosma was a pupil of Bela Bartok. In his song Le Feuilles Mortes  the smoky piano of Carl Bagge combines with Von Otter's smoky vocals into a lovely laid back performance; relaxed but superbly controlled. The title track, Douce France by Leo Chauliac and Charles Trenet is all toe tapping charm. Whilst in Trenet's Boum! we get charm, lightness and wit. In this group, the accordion has slipped out and we have a strong rhythm section.

But in Ferre's Le Pont Mirabeau (setting words by Guillaume Apollinaire) Janson's accordion returns in a lovely arrangement which flows beautifully. For Georges Moustaki's La Carte du tendre we have the interesting combination of Bergstrom's acoustic guitar, Bengtson's harp and Carl Bagge on organ, in a performance which is nicely haunting. Though it might sound laid back, Von Otter ensures that every word count.

Reynaldo Hahn's Chanson d'automne is in fact the first of this Chansons Grise, but here given the chanson treatment in magical arrangement for string quartet, which is edgy at times but rather intriguing. Louiguy and Marguertie Monnot's familiar La Vie en rose is given a quite subtle arrangement with Von Otter making the piece rather intimate and not at all a torch song.

Leo Chauliac and Charles Trenet's Que rest-t-il de nos amours receives the cool treatment, with a rhythm section, lovely cool piano and Grappelli-esque violin playing from Anders Jakobsson. Finally something beautifully simple to close. Jean Lenoir's Parle-moi d'amour with Von Otter accompanied simply by Margareta Bengtson's harp.

For all the discs charms, there are frustrations too. The CD booklet is slightly annoyingly laid out, leaving you flicking through trying to find the English versions. More frustratingly, there are no English translations of the texts. This is perhaps acceptable with the better known texts of the melodies, but it does rather leave the non-French speaker floundering in the chansons. There is however a two page ecomium in praise of Von Otter's talents. More relevant, and more interesting, is Von Otter's nicely characterful note about the making of the disc.

This is a lovely pair of discs. You will probably want to have other performances for some of the items, but Von Otter hardly disappoints and the very special sense of charm and music making with friends comes over superbly.

Reynaldo Hahn (1874 - 1947) - L'Heure Exquise [2.32]
Reynaldo Hahn (1874 - 1947) - Le plus beau present [1.59]
Camille Saint-Saens (1835 -1921) - Claire de lune [1.23]
Camille Saint-Saens (1835 -1921) - Si vous n'avez rien a me dire [3.20]
Camille Saint-Saens (1835 -1921) - Vogue, vogue la galere [1.51]
Reynaldo Hahn (1874 - 1947) - Quand je fus pris au pavillon [1.06]
Reynaldo Hahn (1874 - 1947) - Puisque j'ai mis ma levre [3.48]
Reynaldo Hahn (1874 - 1947) - Cimitiere de campagne [2.23]
Gabriel Faure (1845 - 1924) - Le Secret [2.35]
Maurice Ravel (1875 - 1937) - D'Anne jouant de l'espinette [1.41]
Maurice Ravel (1875 - 1937) - Ballade de la reine morte d'aimer [4.07]
Claude Debussy (1862 - 1918) - Trois Chansons de Bilitis [9.07]
Charles Martin Loeffler (1881 - 1935) - La Cloche felee [8.21]
Charles Martin Loeffler (1881 - 1935) - Serendate [4.30]
Camille Saint-Saens (1835 -1921) - Danse Macabre [2.06]

Barbara (1930 - 1997) arr. Per Ekdahl - Gottingen [3.02]
Norbert Glanzberg (1910-2001) arr. Per Ekdahl - Padam Padam [3.07]
Leo Ferre (1916 - 1993) arr. Per Ekdahl - A Saint-Germain-des-Pres [3.34]
Barbara (1930 - 1997) arr. Carl Bagge - Quel joli temps (september) [3.20]
Francis Lemarque (1917 - 2002) arr. Bengan Jansen and Per Ekdahl - A Paris [3.11]
Manos Hadjidakis (1925 - 1994) arr. Per Ekdahl - Le Facteur [4.08]
Michel Legrand (born 1932) arr. Per Ekdahl - Chanson des jumelles [3.02]
Michel Legrand (born 1932) arr. Carl Bagge - Je vivrai dans toi [3.07]
Joseph Kosma (1905 - 1969) arr. Per Ekdahl - Les Feuilles mortes [4.24]
Leo Chauliac (1913 - 1977), Charles Trenet (1913 - 2001) arr. Per Ekdahl - Douce France [3.21]
Charles Trenet (1913 - 2001) arr. Per Ekdahl - Boum! [2.03]
Leo Ferre (1916 - 1993) arr. Per Ekdahl - Le Pont Mirabeau [2.53]
Georges Moustaki (1934 - 2013) arr. Per Ekdahl - La Carte du tendre [3.03]
Reynaldo Hahn (1874 - 1947) arr. Per Ekdahl - Chanson d'automne [2.13]
Louiguy (1916 - 1991), Marguerite Monnot (1903 - 1961) arr. Per Ekdahl - La Vie en rose [4.13]
Leo Chauliac (1913 - 1977), Charles Trenet (1913 - 2001) arr. Per Ekdahl - Que reste-t-il de nos amours [2.51]
Jean Lenoir (1891 - 1976) arr. Margaret Bengtson - Parlez-moi d'amour [2.39]
Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo-soprano) (CD 1 & 2)
Bengt Forsberg (piano) (CD 1 & 2)
Antoine Tamestit (viola) (CD 1)
Bjorn Gafvert (harmonium) (CD 1)
Per Ekdahl (percussion) (CD 2)
Carl Bagge (piano)(CD 2)
Mats Bergstrom (guitar)(CD 2)
Olle Linder (bass)(CD 2)
Bengan Janson (accordion)(CD 2)
Margareta Bengtson (voice and harp)(CD 2)
Par Grebacken (woodwind)(CD 2)
Karl Olandersson (trumpet)(CD 2)
Magnus Wiklund (trombone)(CD 2)
Ulf Forsberg (biolin)(CD 2)
Anders Jakobsson (violin)(CD 2)
Malin Broman (viola)(CD 2)
Kati Raitinen (cello)(CD 2)
CD 1 recorded in February 2013 in Berwaldhallen, Sveriges Radio AB Stockholm
CD 2 recorded in May 2013 at Atlantis Studio, Stockholm
NAIVE V5343 2CD's [104.00]

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