Graham Johnson is the expert accompanist, annotator, and major domo of what will be a four-volume series of Fauré's complete songs, of which this is the first. As usual in his various song series for Hyperion, he's recruited several British singers for the task, and all deliver about as well as can be expected in an era when the elusive art of the French mélodie has fewer skilled practitioners than in the past. Soprano Felicity Lott always has been partial to the genre, and her six selections, including the Cinq melodies Op. 58 and the song that lends the disc its title, Au bord de l'eau, are enchantingly sung. Lott favors somewhat slower tempos than usual, but with typically idiomatic results. Baritone Christopher MaltmanRead more sings nine of the 26 songs here, including the Op. 58 L'horizon chimérique set; his big voice and sensitive singing are only marred by a slight wobble on sustained notes.
The other singers are never less than good, but only Lott can be compared to some of the finer exponents of these mélodies, such as Irma Kolassi, whose version of Mandoline is both faster and more elegantly sung, with just the right touch of nostalgia at the end. But Lott, at a more relaxed tempo that allows greater detail and textual nuance, is as satisfying. Elsewhere, the great triumphs over the good. Tenor John Mark Ainsley turns his lovely lyric tenor to Au cimetiére. Fine as his rendition is, it cannot match a 1933 recording by baritone Charles Panzéra (Dutton), whose awesome range of vocal color, tearful timbre in the cemetery scenes, and powerful climax (stormy death at sea) remain incomparable. Ainsley also must defer to Leopold Simoneau's 1959 live recording (Orfeo d'Or) with its more flexible rhythms, beautiful coloring of the text, and poignantly sung close. There are many other examples available but they do not detract from the importance of this disc, which includes much lesser-known material, some of it contradicting Fauré's reputation as a reflective composer--for instance, the early duet Tarantelle, fetchingly sung by Geraldine McGreevy and Stella Doufexis, their contrasting timbres interweaving in a tour de force that sounds like something out of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Gondoliers.
Johnson's accompaniments are expertly done, whether the demands are for subtle shadings or skillful fingerwork. But this set is indispensable for Johnson's extensive notes tracing Fauré's development as a song writer--including a detailed time-line--and for his concise analysis of each song, its background, meaning, poetry, and musical points of interest. The sound is adequate, flawed by occasional intrusive sibilants but with generally good balances between voice and piano.