French mélodies have attracted some of the most famous sopranos on record, not necessarily of French background: Victoria de los Angeles, Jessye Norman, Elly Ameling, and Barbara Bonney are some who spring to mind.

Today’s reigning soprano in this repertoire is definitely French: Véronique Gens. She began her singing career in Baroque music, but in 2001 ventured ahead to record Les nuits d’été and Le mort de Cléopâtre by Berlioz. 

Her light voice in those works was in startling contrast to Janet Baker and Régine Crespin, but possibly closer to what Berlioz had in mind. Since then, Gens has fully embraced the 19th-century French repertoire, including Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust. Her most recent recording for Alpha Classics featured a selection of melodies by Reynaldo Hahn, Henri Duparc, and Ernest Chausson, accompanied on piano. With the exception of Duparc, these composers turn up again in the new recital. This time, Gens is accompanied by an orchestra. 

Many composers of the era orchestrated their songs for concert performance. A notable example is Camille Saint-Saēns, whose Aimon-nous and exotic La Splendeur vide (from Mélodies persanes) appear in this program.  (Alpha has also released a disc entirely devoted to Saint-Saēns’ orchestral songs, with tenor Yann Beuron.) While Gens’ recital contains one or two well-known mélodies, most of it is rare. The most familiar is Gabriel Fauré’s setting of Clair de lune: rarely, if ever, performed in its orchestral version, the opening bars featuring solo violin and harp immediately speak to Fauré’s skill and fastidious ear.

Reynaldo Hahn (1874-1947) and Théodore Dubois (1837-1924) dominate the program. Hahn was famed as a composer and performer in the salons; his songs are brief, melodic, and exquisite. He also wrote operettas, chamber music and a piano concerto. His orchestral settings, along with Gens’ artistry, lend his songs unexpected substance. Mai, a charming waltz with an ending designed for applause, might have come straight out of an operetta.

Dubois, one of the more obscure names, contributes six songs. His joyful proclamation of love, Celui que j’aime, opens the program in typically eloquent and melodic fashion. 

Inevitably, there is a sameness about the style and emotional range of this program: Gens, to her credit, does not attempt to compensate by overdoing climaxes or pointing too much detail: instead, she concentrates on interpreting each setting as an individual creation. The poetry is, as you would imagine, primarily concerned with love and loss. Paysage (or Landscape) is the name of the album, after a song by Hahn; it is a landscape beautifully explored by Gens and Niquet.

To add variety, a few short orchestral interludes are included, such as Fauré’s gorgeous Nocturne from Shylock, and interludes from the operas Esclarmonde and Sappho by Jules Massenet. 

In the ensuing decades since her Berlioz disc, Gens’ voice (always strong) has become fuller in tone. She uses more vibrato than before, but always for expressive purposes, and is in full control of it. She is a wonderful singer, in very inviting repertoire.

Listen on Apple Music

Title: Paysage
Works: Music by Dubois, Fauré, Hahn et al.
Performers: Véronique Gens s, Munich Radio Orchestra / Hervé Niquet
Label: Alpha Classics ALPHA1030

Take the Limelight Reader Survey and you could win an Australian Digital Concert Hall gift voucher