Given the division of Fauré’s songs into four chronological surveys organized thematically—“At the Water’s Edge,” “A Chosen Landscape,” “Amid the Scent of Roses”—a “Chanson d’amour” album was inevitable, ineluctable, inexorable. And, given a subject upon which we are all experts, it was also unavoidable that the weaknesses and strengths of Professor Johnson’s intégrale should stand forth in high relief. Both are abundantly present in Johnson’s copious annotations (albeit in 8-point type), generously set off by portraits of the poets and reproductions of contemporary and first-edition sheet music covers. Most, if not all, of this material may be found in Johnson’s A French Song Companion (New York: Oxford University Press,Read more 2000), but there’s an obvious advantage in having it geared, with lyrics and translations, to the album programs. Perhaps nowhere else in English will you find such a richly informed, sympathetic conspectus of the poets Fauré set. On the down side, Johnson’s nearly exhaustive analyses of Fauré’s compositional gambits, while occasionally illuminating, can also be exhausting and pre-emptive, while his doting attentions are often effusively patronizing and, at crucial moments, questionable. As pianist and presiding spirit, Johnson’s view of this fare touches the interpretive heart of the series. For instance, his gloss on the Poème d’un jour—
“…this love affair, from meeting to parting, takes place in a single day. This fact alone limits the emotional range of the music; passion is illusory and impermanent, the rueful farewell marks the end of an affair so short that it cannot be taken any more seriously by the listener than it has been by the lovers themselves. A further factor in rendering the cycle lightweight is the versification of Grandmougin, which matches the sentimentality found in the women’s magazines of the time. Is this a deliberate parody of Massenet’s highly successful series of ‘Poème’ cycles (four of which had been published by 1878) where the texts are equally saccharine? . . . [Rencontre] is music of the greatest urbanity and elegance. It spins a line as surely as the young man spins his . . .The purling progress of the music seems to be on automatic pilot . . . for all its mellifluous progress the music lacks depth, one feels deliberately: the music is as dapper as the elegantly attired young man who sings it.”
—contradicts received opinion, critical and interpretive, which hears in these three songs Fauré’s deeply wounded response to Marianne Viardot’s breaking of their engagement. Of the furious “Toujours” (the cycle’s second song), Johnson writes, “the effect, after the bluster has died down (which it does rather quickly, for it is a short song), is of a storm in a teacup.” Perhaps so, perhaps so. On the other hand, Jean-Michel Nectoux, the doyen of Fauré’s chroniclers, tells us that “Toujours” “throbs with the fury of thwarted passion . . .. Its authenticity of feeling and vehement declamatory style make this one of the most powerful things Fauré ever wrote” (Gabriel Fauré—a musical life (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991)). And one’s own experience—colored by generations of heavy-breathing interpretations going back to Charles Panzéra’s and carried into the latter 20th century by Gérard Souzay—affirms the cycle as a compelling portrait of nympholeptic possession and devastation. Curiously, Johnson disdains any mention of the traditional view. It may be no bad thing to question and rethink one’s interpretive stance, though one would have welcomed some acknowledgement and discussion at this crucial point. And it is a crucial point, for most of the program is riffled with a light touch following from Johnson’s interpretation of the Poème d’un jour. George Bernard Shaw told Busoni, “From Mozart I learned the art of saying important things conversationally.” That is also a quintessential element of Fauré’s attractiveness—the sudden lift into direct exposure of the most potent feeling sans the breast-beating and hysteria of his contemporaries. But I have difficulty equating this with the glib attentions of a Parisian boulevardier—if you know Fauré, you may, too.
Other albums in the series—with Le jardin clos in Volume 2 and La chanson d’Ève in Volume 4—have been rounded out with workmanlike accounts of Fauré’s late, exquisitely rarefied cycles. Christopher Maltman’s bluff heartiness through La bonne chanson is better than that—is, in fact, serviceable and reliably moving—but no match for the radiant exaltation flaring from performances by, say, Panzéra, Souzay, Suzanne Danco, Jacques Herbillon, Thierry Félix, Sanford Sylvan, or Anne Sofie von Otter for starters. But that is one of the major trade-offs of having it all—that is, handily in one place. A large bonus features the magical but rarely heard suite Fauré drew from incidental music for Edmond Haraucourt’s Shylock, with the vocals as he composed them and the instrumental numbers arranged for two pianos by Léon Boëllmann, though some of their charm is pounded out of them by Johnson and Ronan O’Hora’s sanguinary approach. Given that the recordings were made between 2002 and 2004, sound is generally homogeneous—vocalists upfront against richly detailed accompaniment, both immediate—though some numbers, noticeably La bonne chanson, are relatively recessed. As intégrales go, the only competition—and it is considerable—is afforded by Elly Ameling, Souzay, and Dalton Baldwin, though the mid-1970s sound comes garlanded in low-level hiss. If you care for Fauré—if you’ve read this far—you should own one or the other and, eventually, both. The serious collector will find Professor Johnson’s traversal provocative and fascinating in equal measure.