“l’heure exquise”

perhaps a lesser musical genius, but ever sensitive and courteous to his
guests, sees to it that each one’s contribution is noted and echoed in
his own offerings.

The first group, Sept Chansons de ClÈment Marot, by the
Romanian-born George Enescu, sets a tone of wit and tenderness, evoking the
sixteenth-century world of the poet with occasional trills and rolled chords,
yet never surrendering its own style. Each song evokes a moment of wit or of
sentiment, describing gifts between lovers, chastising damoyselles
who are too lazy to write to their friends, or abruptly changing the subject
from love to praise for the pruning-knife and its contribution to
vine-growing, and hence to wine-fueled partying. Not heavy thoughts, by any
means, but well suited to the intimacy of the gathering, and especially
welcome by virtue of the fact that these songs are neither heard nor recorded
as often as they deserve to be.

Our host responds with several of his best-known mÈlodies, all
settings of poems by Paul Verlaine, who had heard them performed in 1893 at
just such a salon, and is reported to have wept upon hearing them. While the
poet’s words are more sensuous and emotional than Marot’s,
Hahn’s music evokes these qualities without straying from boundaries of
taste and scale appropriate to the salon. After the wistful
“D’une prison” and the tender “L’heure
exquise,” Enescu’s look at the past is echoed in Hahn’s
lively “FÍtes Galantes,” setting Verlaine’s gently ironic
poem peopled by the figures of Watteau’s paintings.

The next guest, Ernest Chausson, who has spent some time at Bayreuth,
introduces a philosophical element with some of his less-frequently heard
settings of Verlaine and Charles Baudelaire, opening the emotional and sonic
landscape with their Wagner-influenced harmonies. One of these songs,
“Apaisement,” sets the same deeply contented text as Hahn’s
“L’heure exquise”, but other songs present allegories of
the Poet as a soaring albatross caught and forced to walk clumsily on earth,
and of Misfortune as a knight whose lance destroys the poet’s old heart
but gives rise to a new, more heroic one. The set closes with “La
chanson bien douce”, which praises the discreet, delicate voice that
veils its own sadness and seeks to make other souls less sorrowful. Through
this delicacy and discretion the philosophic composer finds his way back to
the polite world of the salon.

This testament to kindness from the more sÈrieux composer,
emboldens Hahn to return with his own “Offrande”, another
salon-scaled Verlaine setting offering gifts and the poet’s heart, with
the request that the recipient not destroy them. It is interesting to compare
the opening measures of “Offrande” with those of Chausson’s
“Apaisement”, as both create their moods using repeated chords of
half notes. Hahn’s more open chords in a rising pattern plead gently;
Chausson’s more chromatic chords in a downward pattern intimately
invite. In his previous set Hahn had evoked the past through Verlaine’s
ironic text; in this set’s next song he reaches back textually and
musically toward the time of Marot by setting a text by seventeenth-century
poet ThÈophile de Viau over a chaconne-like ground in the delightful “¿
Chloris.” Hahn’s set concludes with “Five Little
Songs”, to texts from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Child’s
Garden of Verses
. Lemieux chooses to sing them in English, although they
were published with singable French translations. I enjoyed hearing these
songs, from the lovely melody in “My ship and I” to the
accompaniments evocative of the swinging motion in “The Swing,”
the galloping horse in “Windy Nights,” and the sense of dazzling
celestial movement in “The Stars”. The set closes with a
straightforward song expressing the child’s happy sense of
accomplishment at having spent an entire day being good.

This is a bit too much for the remaining guest, Claude Debussy, who
returns to the poetry of Verlaine with his masterly set of FÍtes Galantes
. Listening to these dreamy but disillusioned texts declaimed in
expert settings over reinforcing impressionistic accompaniments, we can
visualize the good little boy growing into one of the voyeurs in “Les
ingÈnues,” a “melancholy pilgrim” resting to tambourine
music under the sardonic eye of “Le faune,” or, worst of all, one
of the ghosts endlessly strolling the icy landscape trying to remember or
forget lost passion in “Colloque sentimental.”

But our host will not leave us encumbered by this dark vision of life and
afterlife. The program closes with two settings of Victor Hugo separated by
one of the composer’s friend Alphonse Daudet. The Daudet setting
“Trois jours de vendange”, acknowledges mortality as the verses
progress. In the first, lively music depicts a robustly sensuous young girl;
funereal chords at the end of the final verse underscore the fate of the vine
that had “too many grapes”. However, the other two songs stick a
Romantic thumb in death’s eye. In “Puisque j’ai mis ma
lËvre” the poet proclaims that love has given his soul the power to
withstand the devastation of time. The magnificent final song, “Quand
la nuit n’est pas ÈtoilÈe,” equates the image of a totally dark
night with that of an eternity whose mystery can be fathomed by “your
forsaken heart.” This is a bold challenge, but Hahn’s setting,
which transcends the salon-appropriate scale of most of his songs, is just
grand enough to make it believable, the postlude carrying on the brave spirit
of the text until it pauses for one shivering chord before settling into its
final cadence.

I have said little about the performers so far, because, even if they were
much less accomplished than they are, the program would still be well worth
hearing. Marie-Nicole Lemieux’s contralto is clear and warm, with an
appropriate emotional connection to the varied tones and styles of the songs.
Pianist Daniel Blumenthal brings clarity and sonority to the richly evocative
accompaniments. The result will be consistently aesthetically pleasing and
moving to most listeners, although some purists may be put off by
Lemieux’s device of withdrawing support slightly during phrases to
underscore the emotional atmosphere (I’ve heard Cecilia Bartoli do the
same kind of thing). Since Lemieux’s voice is so warm, this technique
reinforces the sense of the salon’s intimacy, but does not noticeably
alter the sound into pop territory. Nevertheless, when I compared her
performance of Chausson’s “La chanson bien douce” with that
of another contralto, Natalie Stutzmann, the latter gave an effective
performance with a much more consistently pointed sound. (But it should be
noted that, on a recording given over entirely to the mÈlodies of
Chausson, this is the only one of Lemieux’s Chausson selections to

At the very fine detail level, I was so taken with “Quand la nuit
n’est pas ÈtoilÈe” that I took a look at it myself and discovered
that Hahn wrote in some rather unusual dynamics, most notably a diminuendo
over the climactic phrase “o˘ sont les anges”. Musical instinct
would say to build the sound still further instead, which is what Lemieux
does. Hahn’s dynamic would certainly reinforce the sense of receding
mystery of the dark void, but I couldn’t help wondering whether it is
even humanly possible to sing it the way he wrote it. So I compared Susan
Graham’s performance on her recent Hahn recital disc, and she does come
closer to Hahn’s dynamic, perhaps because she is using a purer operatic
technique that allows for more controlled piano sounds in the higher
registers. Listeners who prefer this kind of sound and are primarily
interested in the Hahn songs may like Graham’s performance of them

But the real strength of this disc is in the variety of compositional
styles tied together by similar textual themes, and in the fact that it
contains performances of songs that are rare or nonexistent elsewhere on
recording. The fact that the performances are as fine and rewarding to hear
as they are makes the disc that much more special. The stylishly produced
booklet contains notes, texts and translations in English and French. Audio
samples and additional information are available on the web here.

Barbara Miller

image_description=L’Heure Exquise
product_title=“l’heure exquise”
product_by=Marie-Nicole Lemieux, contralto, Daniel Blumenthal, piano
product_id=NaÔve Classics V5022 [CD]