Thursday 9 April 2020

Exquisite sketches: songs by Reynaldo Hahn from Anastasia Prokofieva & Sergey Rybin on Stone Records - L'heure exquise

L'heure exquise - songs by Reynaldo Hahn; Anastasia Prokofieva, Sergey Rybin; Stone Records
L'heure exquise - songs by Reynaldo Hahn; Anastasia Prokofieva, Sergey Rybin; Stone Records
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 November 2019 Star rating: 3.0 (★★★)
A Russian duo brings a lightness and freshness to Hahn's lovely melodies

Despite a considerable musical output covering works for the stage and large-scale orchestral works, it is for his songs that Reynaldo Hahn is best known. There is a handful of well-known ones, melodies which singers love to bask in, but there are plenty more which repay investigation.

On this new disc of Reynaldo Hahn's songs L'heure exquise on Stone Records, soprano Anastasia Prokofieva and pianist Sergey Rybin given us a wide selection, from Si mes vers avaient des ailes! which was an instant success in 1888 (when he was 14!) right through to Au fil de l'eau and Mon reve etait d'avoir.. from the 1934 film La Dame aux Camelias, to a pair of songs from 9 Mélodies retrouvées published posthumously in 1955.

The selection casts its net widely though the majority of songs date from before 1914, which reflects Hahn's output which declined partly because he served during World War I, and then after the war devoted time to conducting, being general manager of Cannes Casino Opera House and writing criticism for Le Figaro. But it is also because Hahn belonged to the pre-World War One world, to the beau monde, and as he got older and Paris belonged to Stravinsky and Les Six, musically Hahn did not move and stayed true his revered teacher at the Paris Conservatoire, Massenet.

The CD booklet includes an excellent essay by Richard Stokes which provides plenty of background on the songs and their texts, but in fact gives us no hint of the criteria for selection, or for arrangement. Certainly Prokofieva and Rybin ignore the published order of the songs, selecting individual songs from collections, but then everyone does.

Hahn was renowned as a performer, there are recordings of him accompanying the soprano Ninon Vallin, but also he was notable for accompanying himself (you can hear a selection on YouTube), and he made enough recordings to fill three CDs (once available but now no-longer). He had a small but useful voice, and listening to him perform makes you consider what is the most important factor in these songs. A number of singers quite clearly enjoy luxuriating in the sheer beauty of some of Hahn's melodies.

Prokofieva and Rybin tend not to luxuriate, they keep speeds relatively fluid so that we get a dazzling array of 25 short songs in a recital lasting a fraction over an hour. This captures Hahn's great gift, the ability to write memorably and melodically, yet economically too, to capture an atmosphere in a few notes. Perhaps he is less adept at developing complex emotions, but there are all exquisite sketches, each a delightful moment.

Even in the best known songs such as A Chloris (from 1913) or Si mes vers avaient des ailes! (from 1888), Prokofieva sings with a sense of intimacy and delicacy, and even in a late song like the lovely Au fil l'eau from 1934 we can note Hahn's delicate skill. But this latter song, and the other one from La Dame aux Camelias brings us to a difficult point.

Do we simply sit back and enjoy Prokofieva's quite delicate, strongly vibrato led voice with its sense of focus yet ability to sing with style, or do we want something a little more. She sings French, creditable and recognisable, but the words are not to the fore. There is a tendency to swallow the consonants and to sing with a generalised timbre, rather than specific tone to give words prominence.

Language is important here, Hahn wrote and spoke exquisite French but his first language was Spanish, as his mother was from Venezuala whilst his father was a German (thus Hahn surname has an aspirated first H, rather than being pronounced in the French manner) who had moved to Latin America to make his fortune. (The family moved to France when he was three). Thus, the French language is a choice and text takes on even greater importance.

I have to confess that if I was looking for a disc of Hahn's songs, then you need to consider the two CD set on Hyperion (available from The Hive) with Felicity Lott, Susan Bickley, Ian Bostridge, Stephen Varcoe and Graham Johnson, but you can also buy baritone Tassis Christoyanis' boxed set of the complete songs from Bru Zane (available from The Hive).

I enjoyed this disc for the willingness of Prokofieva and Rybin to take a slightly different route through the songs. Just listen to their concentrated, interior performance the 1890 song L'heure exquise to see what I mean. But I did want a greater sense that this was sung French, that these songs were more than lovely melodies and were sung poetry.

Reynaldo Hahn (1874-1947) - Aimons-nous… (1891)
Reynaldo Hahn - À une étoile (1901)
Reynaldo Hahn - Dans l’été (1908)
Reynaldo Hahn - Tyndaris (1899-1900)
Reynaldo Hahn - Mai (1889)
Reynaldo Hahn - Au fil de l’eau (1934)
Reynaldo Hahn - Nocturne (1895)
Reynaldo Hahn - Quand la nuit n’est pas étoilée (1900)
Reynaldo Hahn - Naïs (1955)
Reynaldo Hahn - Rêverie (1914)
Reynaldo Hahn - À Chloris (1913)
Reynaldo Hahn - Le rossignol des lilas (1913)
Reynaldo Hahn - L’heure exquise (1889-1890)
Reynaldo Hahn - L’énamourée (1891)
Reynaldo Hahn - Chanson (1911-1912)
Reynaldo Hahn - L’incrédule (1913)
Reynaldo Hahn - Adieu (1899)
Reynaldo Hahn - Phyllis (1899-1900)
Reynaldo Hahn - Ta main (1955)
Reynaldo Hahn - Naguère, au temps (1896)
Reynaldo Hahn - Fêtes galantes (1892)
Reynaldo Hahn - Fleur fanée (1892)
Reynaldo Hahn - Si mes vers avaient des (1888)
Reynaldo Hahn - J’ai caché dans la rose (1903)*
Reynaldo Hahn - Mon rêve était d’avoir… (1934)
Anastasia Prokofieva (soprano)
Sergey Rybin (piano)
Recorded 10-12 November 2018, Cadogan Hall, London

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