Faure for the ages

  • by Tim Pfaff
  • Tuesday June 27, 2006
Share this Post:

The composer arguably most deserving of a reputation upgrade is Gabriel Faure. Even though his output is large and varied, it lacks the scope and reach of the truly great, so finding him a place in the pantheon of composer gods would be beside the point. Yet his music is so consistently well-composed that it's a pity classical-music regulars seldom get a chance to hear more than that sublime Requiem and the dozen-plus songs that regularly turn up on song recitals.

The biggest boost Faure's music has got in decades is Hyperion's recent four-CD release of his complete songs. Like most of Hyperion's others, the set is the brainchild of gay song-specialist, coach, pianist and all-around musical polymath Graham Johnson. His speculation about the relative neglect of Faure is that composer himself had a tendency to be "backward in coming forward."

Proust, a friend of Faure's whose musical tastes were as refined and sophisticated as his writing, was among the composer's great admirers, and Faure's music figured large in the private, bedside concerts Proust held in his Paris apartment. During the time Faure's composer colleague Reynaldo Hahn was Proust's lover, Hahn is known to have sung Faure songs for the master. To have been a fly on that cork wall! Now, thanks to Johnson, his able team of singers, and your programmable CD player, you can play Proust at home. Pop a cork!

As with his complete cycles of the songs of Schubert and Schumann and the half-dozen-plus CDs in Hyperion's French Song Edition, the tireless Johnson is both accompanist (though piano muse seems more like it) throughout the set and the author of book-length program notes of musicological thoroughness and insight, fascinating personal asides and interesting background material about the songs.

The finishing touch he adds to the Faure set is presenting the songs not chronologically, but by theme. Each of the CDs, with their Proustian-sounding titles (which had to have been Johnson's) Vol. 1, At the Water's Edge; Vol. 2, A Chosen Landscape; Vol. 3, Love Songs; and Vol. 4, Amid the Scent of Roses (of course, they sound even better in French), includes songs that span the whole of Faure's six-decade composing career, which drapes evenly over the fulcrum of the turn of the 20th century. That, plus using multiple singers of different voice types on each, makes the discs such pleasurable listening you're slightly crushed when they're over.

Love notes

Since the volumes are available separately, if you want to find out if this singular fare is to your taste, you might start with the Chansons d'amour (Vol. 3). From the first track, it has an unbridled vitality that only the French idea of "love" would allow. It also has "Les Presents," the one song we know for certain that Hahn sang for Proust, an achingly sad, verbally elusive two minutes of music that finds Jean-Paul Fouchecourt, whose slender, reedy voice will be an acquired taste for many, at his most convincing.

It also has the six pieces Faure composed for Shylock, Edmond Haraucourt's three-act adaptation of Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice: two odd, sharply etched character songs sandwiched among two-piano arrangements of four other movements (on which Ronan O'Hora joins Johnson). My initial reluctance to hear the music apparently mirrors Faure's own to write it, yet it's one of the groups I find myself going back to most often, since the material prompts Faure to push the harmonic envelope more than usual, and the music-making is top-drawer, what with Johnson being the set's true star.

If it has a vocal one, it's Felicity Lott, who on that disc gets the two most luscious songs, "Notre amour" and "Le secret," and on A Chosen Landscape just one, but it's the justly famous "Clair de lune." The signs of wear in the soprano's voice are beyond disguising, but the sultry, irrepressible chanteuse usually hidden in this sophisticated singer's other repertoire breaks free ecstatically every time she sings, which gratefully is on every disc. Except for the reliable and always musical John Mark Ainsley, almost all of the singers  — Christopher Maltman, Stephen Varcoe and Geraldine McGreevy most important among them — often lapse into vocal unsteadiness. And nowhere will you hear anything that rivals the musical authority, mastery of idiom and voluptuousness of sound you find on Janet Baker's all-Faure Hyperion disc, with Geoffrey Parsons. Still, the musicians' collective commitment to this important and still largely unknown repertoire, and joy in making it, keep your focus on the songs, an exquisite getaway in dark times.