Thursday 14 July 2022

Interior life: Malcolm Martineau and friends in the complete songs of Henri Duparc

The Complete Songs of Duparc: Sarah Connolly, Nicky Spence, Huw Montague Rendall, William Thomas, Malcolm Martineau; Signum Classics

The Complete Songs of Duparc: Sarah Connolly, Nicky Spence, Huw Montague Rendall, William Thomas, Malcolm Martineau; Signum Classics
Reviewed 13 July 2022 (★★★★★)

Henri Duparc's 16 surviving songs in performances which bring out the sense of the composer's interior life, as well as combining profoundly expressive singing with Martineau's supportive and wide-ranging piano 

In August last year (2021) I chatted to pianist Malcolm Martineau after his completion of his complete Faure songs project for Signum Classics [see my interview, 'Don't be scared of song'], and he is now back with the complete songs of Henri Duparc. Like the Faure, and several of his other projects, Martineau has done the recording with a group of singers, as he explained in the interview 'he wanted to evoke the atmosphere of the first performances of these songs as music-making amongst friends'.

So on Signum Classics we have The Complete Songs of Duparc with Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano), Huw Montague Rendall (baritone), Nicky Spence (tenor), William Thomas (bass) and Malcolm Martineau (piano).

Duparc is a tantalising figure, his first surviving song dates from when he was 20 and for just under 20 years he would write a sequence of songs that have become some of the best known, finest and most influential in the French language. He wrote in other genres, there was an unfinished opera, there is chamber music and piano music as well as orchestral works, yet it is for the songs that he is best known. He stopped, suddenly, in his late 30s and though he continued to tinker with songs and would orchestrate some, he did not write anything new. What he did do is ruthlessly cull his works, and there are many works which are known about but have been destroyed. His unfinished opera Roussalka survives as a couple of tantalising fragments and nothing more.

The songs are performed, I think, in date order beginning with Chanson triste and ending with La vie antérieure. Duparc's songs are tantalising, often viewed as somehow imperfect by his contemporaries, they now seem to each be something perfect and to encapsulate an interior moment.

The sixteen surviving ones that we have do not illuminate a wide range of emotions, Duparc was not Poulenc or Faure, but instead there is a sense of concentration on the interior life, and whatever the meanings of the text each feels suffused with melancholy. Yet there is also a feeling of the neo-classical in the Graeco-Roman sense, a feel for the sheer poise and shape, despite the fluidity of the setting of the French texts. In his booklet note, Roger Nichols quotes Fritz Noske, 'his [Duparc's] genius inaugurates the epoch when the mélodie becomes the preferred medium for the greatest French composers, who confide to it their most intimate and most profound inspirations'.

We begin with Chanson triste from Sarah Connolly, sung with a rich sound yet poised and with a fabulous souplesse, a suppleness of vocal line. The song dates from 1868/69, just before a flood of songs thanks perhaps due to his lessons from Franck but also visits to Munich to see Wagner's Tristan, Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, this latter with Saint-Saens, and Wagner's influence is felt alongside that of Franck in the later songs. In Soupir, Nicky Spence brings a thoughtful melancholy to the song, his voice intense and rather direct, then at the end, bleak. Connolly returns with Romance de Mignon. Almost light at the beginning, the piano has an animation that does not quite reach the graveness of the voice and Connolly rises to intensity at the end.

For Sérénade, Spence and Martineau combine suppleness and lightness of texture with gravity of tone, then in Le galop, William Thomas brings a dark characterful tone and a lovely feel for the words, with both Thomas and Martineau bring a vividness to the performance. Connolly is infinitely sad in Au pays où se fait la guerre, but at the opening of the third verse with its painful expectation, she is intense and dramatic leading to the freer sections of the final verse. A powerful performance of one of the first of Duparc's really great songs. 

Connolly also sings L’invitation au voyage, one of Duparc's best known songs and one of the earliest Beaudelaire settings by anyone. Connolly combines suppleness with gravity, aided by the magic of Martineau's piano. For the song's refrain, 'luxe, calme et volupté' Connolly shows a finely expressive use of the words. As the song develops, we are aware both of the neo-Classical shape to its line and the seductive gravity of the performance, allied to the transparency in Martineau's playing. La vague et la cloche by contrast is less well-known and was the only song Duparc wrote originally with orchestral accompaniment, and the piano version is the composer's own. William Thomas creates vivid drama in the song and the sound of his voice seems so apposite for French song. The dark drama of the piece is heightened by the fabulous tolling bell effects in the piano. Connolly makes Extase poised and thoughtful with a lovely supple piano part from Martineau, creating something deceptively simple yet moving.

Connolly again sings Élégie with poise combined with intensity of emotion, and it is remarkable how much expressivity can be compressed into a single, flexible vocal line. Huw Montague Rendall is vividly heroic at the opening of Le manoir de Rosemonde, yet the tone becomes more uncertain and there is that lovely throw away ending as the poet admits that he never finds his goal! Sérénade florentine sees Nicky Spence floating a lightly seductive line, but then the song becomes more complex and we leave the simple serenade behind. 

Lamento finds Montague Rendall and Martineau in dark, thoughtful mood. Montague Rendall is grave, yet the voice is full of colours and the two create moments of intense drama. Phidylé is one of those songs that 'everybody' does, often with a mezzo-soprano luxuriating in the sheer beauty of the sound. Here Huw Montagu Rendall brings a fascinatingly dark tone to the song, a grave thoughtfulness but with some shattering climaxes. As with many of the songs on the disc however, Martineau and his singers are simply returning to Duparc's original thoughts, and Phidylé was written for high male voice and piano. Connolly's final contribution to the disc is Testament, and she and Martineau make the song a remarkable piece of intense drama, the complexity of the music looking forward and leaving the influence of Faure well behind.

We end with a little bit of magic. William Thomas in Duparc's final Beaudelaire setting, La vie antérieure where he displays a fabulous sense of flexibility, allied to variety of tone and colour. He and Martineau make the song a real piece of interior life. I do hope that someone asks Thomas to do a disc of French song, there are so many that I would love to hear him singing

This set has a lovely ability to look beyond both the well-known songs and beyond the conventional view of them. Martineau and the four singers all bring a thoughtfulness and profound consideration to the performances, we very rarely simply luxuriate in the simple beauty of sound. And whilst there is plenty of that, each song is a profoundly expressive microcosm, bringing alive the composer's complex and fascinating interior life.

The complete songs of Henri Duparc (1848-1943)
Chanson triste
Romance de Mignon
Le galop
Au pays où se fait la guerre
L’invitation au voyage
La vague et la cloche
Le manoir de Rosemonde
Sérénade florentine
La vie antérieure
Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano)
Nicky Spence (tenor)
Huw Montague Rendall (baritone)
William Thomas (bass)
Malcolm Martineau (piano)
Recorded in Wathan Hall, Barnes, London, 3 & 4 April 2019 and in the Britten Studio, Snape Maltings, Suffolk, 6 - 8 April 2021

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