L’invitation au voyage: Mélodies from La belle époque

Recorded on 2 to 4
June 2004, this collection of French mélodies from the end of the nineteenth century is a fine
addition to Hyperion’s French Song Edition. John Mark Ainsley and Graham Johnson are well
suited to the repertoire presented here, and this particular selection of pieces plays off a theme
that was popular at the time, the prospect of journeying elsewhere. The responses in song are
varied, and include a number of settings of the eponymous verse by Baudelaire that inspired a
number of composers to embark on their own settings of his text. This is, in a sense, the French
Belle Époque equivalent of the German Romantic “Kennst du das Land?” that intrigued
generations of composers to fashion their own musical expressions of this well-known verse.

While Duparc’s setting of “L’Invitation au voyage” is probably the most famous, the others
presented here merit attention for the nuances they bring to the poem. The one by Jules
Cressonnois that opens the recording is engaging because of the combination of dramatic lines
with more lyric ones, suggesting the tension present in voyaging away form the familiar. Other
settings of the same text are included here, namely those by Benjamin Godard, Paul and Lucien
Hillemacher and, naturally, Henri Duparc, and each presents an individual interpretation of the
text. If a voyage entails a return, though, the placement of Duparc’s familiar “L’invitation au
voyage” at the end provides a musical anchor in having a familiar mélodie at the conclusion of a
set of otherwise unfamiliar, yet equally engaging music.

Beyond the composers listed above, there are songs by Léo Delibes, Charles Lecocq, Émile
Pesard, Paul Puget, and Émile Paladilhe, and the poets outside of Baudelaire include Émile
Augier, Alfred de Musset, Armand Silvestre, Jean de La Fontaine, Théophile Gautier, Victor
Hugo, Sully Prodhomme, Pierre Corneille, Jean Aicard, and Jean Lahor. Of the familiar figures
like Corneille, Hugo, and Musset, their names may not y draw associations with vocal music as
readily as they do other genres. Yet their poetry inspired composers of this generation, and the
music retains a freshness that resembles some of the art and architecture of the period in which it
was written.

“Bonjour, Suzon” by Delibes is a case in point, with its extroverted address to Suzon — Suzanne
— who remains absent to the traveler who is addressing her in the song. In the three strophes of
unrequited entreaty, the repeated greeting of “bonjourn” becomes at the end “adieu” as the
speaker makes in case in repeated efforts to speak to her. His voyages are met with a different
situation at home, but the music suggests that it is not entirely tragic. It is hardly a sentimental
piece, but the song that follows, “Regrets” by the same composer offers such poignancy. Here the
accompaniment complements the vocal line by reinforcing the implied mood with some finely
place chromatic inflections.

A similarly notable accompaniment occurs in “Guitare,” Godard’s setting of a poem by Hugo,
and a charming piece. While the harmonic and melodic idiom is conservative, the song is crafted
artfully to suit a gifted singer with the sense of nuance that Ainsley brings to this and other pieces
in the collection. It is, perhaps, more rhythmically inventive than some of the other songs on this
recording. While the rhythmic play is unmistakably intended to suggest the guitar, the
syncopations play against the more regular accents in the text. A popular text at the time, the
simply stated text implies a dramatic moment that attracted other composers to this poem, like
Puget. In fact, the latter setting differs dramatically from Godard’s in its elegiac character and
fervent tone.

Some of the pieces are simply exuberant, as with Lecocq’s “La cigale et la fourmi,” an
encapsulation in verse of the story about the grasshopper and the ant. It is, as the comments in the
accompanying booklet, a sophisticated piece that takes inspiration from the fables of La
Fontaine, as “La chauve-souris et les deux belettes” (“The bat the two weasels”) that follows it in
the recording and suggests the range of topics — and literature — that could be encompassed in
this repertoire and which inspired composers’ musical imaginations.

This is a fine collection of French song from the Belle Époque, and those unfamiliar with the
range of composers who worked at the time will find a solid introduction in this recording. The
notes that accompany the recording are intelligent and perceptive and point to the deep know of
the music that Graham Johnson has already shown in the material he has contributed to other
Hyperion recordings. His accompanying is masterful, with thoughtful phrasing and careful
dynamics. His interpretations remain solid and convincing. Moreover, John Mark Ainsley is in
his element in these songs, and he brings to the repertoire a vibrant deliver that demonstrates his
own immersion in the repertoire. Those who know his voice from other Hyperion collections
have the privilege of hearing an entire album by this accomplished tenor. His approach is always
well thought, with clear diction and apt expression. Ainsley and Graham Johnson have made a
fine contribution to the discography of French song with this collection of melodies from a
fascinating period in French music.

James Zychowicz

image_description=L’invitation au voyage: Mélodies from La belle époque
product_title=L’invitation au voyage: Mélodies from La belle époque
product_by=John Mark Ainsley, tenor. Graham Johnson, piano
product_id=Hyperion CDA67523 [CD]