I was both skeptical of and enthusiastic about this late 2009 release of French mélodies. It is comprised of songs that collectively feel like a meal made of flakey pastries, but they individually delight in the same way. Could a countertenor d’agilità pull off a 66 minute recital of belle-époque parlor songs that have previously been the domain of the great Gérard Souzay, Pierre Bernac, and Maggie Teyte?
In a word, Ouais. It turns out that the qualities that gave his predecessors supremacy in this repertoire are inherent to the unique voice of Philippe Jaroussky – a simple tone quality, narrow vibrato, mastery of the French language, and diction that values expression over beauty.
No one is really competing with Jaroussky in his chosen repertoire. Is he the most clever singer since Cecilia Bartoli in finding the music and collaborators that distinguish his recordings in this era of scarcity? Pianist Jérôme Ducros is a revelation, light on the pedal with articulation as fast and clean as Jaroussky’s celebrated coloratura – an ideal collaborator who inspires the mood of each song.
Then there is the trio of French heartthrobs: violinist Renaud Capuçon (who is credited with inspiring this recital), his cellist brother Guatier Capuçon, and the acclaimed flautist Emmanuel Pahud. (Virgin Classics’ marketing researchers should be proud to have pinpointed my exact taste in publicity photos and fantasy ensembles.) These musicians certainly add variety and drama to an otherwise piano-voice recital: Gautier in Massenet’s Elégie, which sounds ripped from the pages of Werther; Renaud in the show-stealer Violons dans le soir by Saint-Saëns, almost a parody of the late romantic violin solo – pure camp, but done with élan; and Mr. Pahud in Andre Caplet’s Viens, une flûte invisible soupire (perhaps one of the album’s least successful tracks, revealing Jaroussky’s tone to be plus blanche qu’une flûte).
Not to diminish the trio’s contribution to this project, but let’s be real: Philippe has a unique appeal, especially to countertenor fans and homosexuals. And, there is certainly a large intersection of these two groups. Accepting this idea makes certain selections deliciously erotic with their intended double-entendre. The male protagonist of Chausson’s Le Colibri (the hummingbird) at last is both sung from the male perspective and sounds like a winsome bird who “drinks so much love from the rosy cup that he dies, without knowing if he could drink it dry!” However, the most perfect moments on this disc – a truly magical alignment of the spheres – happen when Jaroussky sings Hahn. Could the renowned homosexual composer, lover of Marcel Proust, documentarian of the French singing style, Venezuelan-Parisian Reynaldo Hahn have ever imagined this world-class gay artist and early music specialist singing A Chloris with its nostalgic reference to the baroque era? Is there anything more queer than that? Jaroussky makes something special of Offrande; it sounds like the muted post-coital conversation of a boy, barely a man, to his lover half under the bed sheets. And L’heure exquise is revealed to be a masterpiece of language, music, and singing that ranks Hahn among Schubert, Verlaine among Goethe, and Jaroussky among Bernac. Queer theorists, feel free to trace the line that I have drawn.
Not every song is as appealing as the Hahn or the Chausson. The program is ambitious and digs a little further into this genre than one may want to go. Particularly problematic is Faure’s Automne, a song that begs for the morbidezza of a singer like Hunt-Lieberson or even Nathalie Stutzmann. And the pair of mélodies by Franck and D’Indy suffer from heaviness in what is otherwise an ethereal soufflé.
This disc delivers on its promise. We have a singer in full command of his technique, calling attention to a niche repertoire while serving it with integrity. Many composers are drawn into the fold, discoveries are made, and the cream rises to the top. Young countertenors take note that you need not be confined to Handel and Caldara if you can do it all as well as the featherweight champion.
Tags: Philippe Jarousssky, queer