The songs of Gabriel Faure are among the finest in the world. Fewer in number than Shubert's which get up into the 600s, or those of Hugo Wolf, of which there are more than 300, the 105 songs Faure wrote over a period of more than 60 years include some of the most beautiful songs ever written. And in their marriage of superb poetry to fluent, expressive piano writing, their finest examples easily stand alongside the best in German Lieder as well as the French melodies of Debussy, Ravel and Poulene.
It is all went and easy to say these things about the songs of Faure. But in these days when song recitals often seem to be disappearing from concert halls, such claims are a little hard to prove unless recordings come along that make the point unmistakable.
Now at last, to the complete song literature of Schubert, Mahler, Debussy, Ravel and Wolf (nearly all of whose songs have been recorded), a magnificent few collection has been added: The Songs of Gabriel Faure, sung by baritone Gerard Souzay and soprano Elly Ameling, with pianist Dalton Baldwin. On four records in two Connoisseur albums, numbered 2127 and 2128, you can hear a body of songs that includes some of the best known and most popular melodies in the world.
For instance, "Apres unreve" is probably the most familiar of all Faure songs. Yet its popularity is due more to the gorggeous sound it produces when played in transcription on the cellos of the late Pablo Casals or Mstislav Rostropovich there's little enough. There's this insane artist, seances of it that have been made by great singers. But "Apres unreve" is not really one of the greatest songs by Faure; itis simply one of many for which he supplied a radiant melodic line.
Faure chose his poems from among the finest poets of his time: Sully Prudhomme, Theophile Gautier, Leconte de Lisle, Armand Silvestre and others. Their fragrant lines inspired him to such memorable songs as "Au bord de l'eau," "Tristesse" and "Les roses d'Ispahan." The sweeping power of his "Automne," written in his early 30s to a poem by Silvestre, shows how strongly Faure had moved into the song world years before he first became acquainted with the poet who produced such a dramatic flavor in his later works.
But it was with his introduction to the poerty of Paul Verlaine that Faure began to travel new paths in melody as well as harmony. The sensuous tone of the poems is reflected in the sonorities that mark the later piano writing as much as in the newer shapes the songs take on. It is after he began to set Verlaine that Faure moved into the realm of the song cycle that he so richly ornamented. "Lachanson d'Eve," to poems by Charles von Lerberghe, La bonne chanson," to Verlaine's passionate lines, and at the end of his career, the cycle, "L'horizon chimerque" with poetry by Jean de La Ville de Mirmont, show us the finest heights of Faure in ways that, for all their differences, suggest somehting of the panetration of Schubert's "Die schoene Muellerin" and the close intertwinings of Wolf's Italienishes Lieder.
To those who may wonder who this Gabriel Faure of the great songs might be, it can be recalled that Nadia Boulanger once named his setting of the "Requiem," written in 1885, as the work with which contemporary music began. But it is not enough to be acquainted with these songs from the printed page alone. For them to establish Faure as one of the world's greatest song writers requires singers of very special powers, not only in vocal control but in interpretive musicianship. They demand a feeling for language and poetic meanings as profound as that needed for great readings of Schubert's "Die Winterreise," or Schumann's "Dichterliebe."
Over 20 years ago, an ambitious record producer turned out a set that included nearly all the Faure songs. But the singers and pianists in that set were hopelessly inadequate for their task. Fortunately, the new Connoisseur albums have been produced by artists who meet these requirements to a startling degree.
Souzay, Ameling and Baldwin performed these songs during the 1974 festicalat Aix-en-Provence, at which time these recordings were made. The baritone and his famous pianist-partner are unrivaled today in their total mastery of the various arts that make for perfection in Faure. Souzay's voice is richly colored to embrace the wide-ranging moods of the songs he interprets in the set, among which are included the "Bonne chanson" and "L'horizon chimerque" cycles.
There is no subtle nuance, no exquisite shading he does not impart to every phrase he utters. It would probably be impossible to find another soprano today who can sing these songs as Ameling does, with her lovely French and her sense of style and phrase. If, at times, you feel that you are hearing in Ameling a very fine singer, who does not, however, convey the impression that Souzay gives of taking you deep into the heart of Faure, that is probably a conclusion no other soprano could avoid.
One of the many wonders of these recordings is the richness of Baldwin's insights. He, after all, plays in every one of the songs, while the singers divide the work between them. Baldwin makes ideally clear the special role Faure wanted the piano to fill, the supporting texture that enhances the mood created by the voice, the frequently virtuoso role withwhich Faure enriches the dramatic emotions of the poems.
The two albums include three duets: two for two sopranos, in which Ameling very neatly offers both voices; one ofor baritone and mezzo, for which Ameling slightly darkens he normally bright sound. One of the unfamiliar but charming songs is in English: Melisande's Song, written to a text by J.W.Mackail, "after Maeterlinck." A very few of the songs could be called silly or pointless - certainly the duet. "Trantella" is. But four records of songs have rarely brought forward any higher proportion of exquisite beauty and unmistakable treasures than this.
For the first time, and, as far as necessity goes, probably for the last. Faure and his songs have been accorded the artistic awareness in interpretation essential to a true revelation of their real greatness. Connoisseur's two albums deserve place alongside those rate treasures in your library that you put on the shelves reserved for the very finest.