Lalo: Complete Songs

Music lovers in French-speaking lands might also mention Le roi
, a richly atmospheric opera that, despite being available on CD
and DVD, is unknown to most music lovers (except for its overture and a
delectable tenor aria: “Vainement, ma bien-aimée”).
Musicologist Hugh Macdonald has recently published Lalo’s first opera,
Fiesque, a work based on a play by Schiller and never performed in the
composer’s lifetime. As interesting and as varied as Le roi
, Fiesque has received a recording (featuring Roberto
Alagna) and has even been staged twice. Yet another Lalo opera, La
(completed by Arthur Coquard after the composer’s death)
was performed to much acclaim in the Auditorium of Radio-France; the
work’s first recording, with the same performers, will be released in
Fall 2016.

Here we have, on two CDs, the other major vocal genre in which Lalo was
active: songs for voice and piano. The collection contains all
thirty-two songs
that Lalo approved for
publication (though some ended up appearing posthumously). All but the earliest
nine are now easily available from the music publisher Heugel, in a volume
edited with scrupulous care by Joël-Marie Fauquet (1988). Fifteen can be
consulted in facsimile in David Tunley’s essential Romantic French
Song: 1830-1870
(Garland, 1995), vol. 3. Tunley’s volume includes
six of the early nine songs, plus Lalo’s first published version of the
Op. 17 songs. (Lalo later published a much-revised version.) Tunley’s
volume also offers generally clear translations of song texts, plus suggestions
to singers regarding French vowels.

For decades now, scholars have been telling the world about the wonders of
the Lalo songs. Frits Noske, in his French Song from Berlioz to Duparc
(Dover paperback), declared that the aforementioned Op. 17 songs—setting
six poems by Victor Hugo—show Lalo to be “among the masters of the
genre.” More generally, “Lalo’s songs are distinguished from
those of his contemporaries principally by their profound sense of
poetry…His pieces teem with ingenious harmonic and rhythmic
inventions.” Lalo also “introduced humor and cheerfulness”
into French art song.

These enthusiastic claims are well supported by the present recording, which
gives evidence of a composer open to a wide range of influences—including
Schubert, Schumann, and Gounod—yet always resulting in music that sounds
confident and “right.” The big surprise is the first of the two
CDs, which contains the nine early songs, published when Lalo was 25 and 26
years old. Six of them employ texts that the songwriter Pierre-Jean de
Béranger originally wrote, decades earlier, to be sung to well-known
tunes. In these Béranger texts, social observation and social criticism
are conveyed with a mixture of sentimentality and biting irony. Lalo writes new
music for the texts and sets them strophically—that is, with the same
music used for each of the many strophes. (Often a song has six strophes, and
one has seven!) As a result, some of these songs last ten minutes or more.

The remaining twenty-three songs (CD2) are based on poetic texts by a
welcome array of poets: we encounter Gautier, Hugo, Lamartine, Musset, plus
some lesser scribblers. Other composers—including Berlioz, Liszt, Bizet,
Massenet, Saint-Saëns, Fauré, Duparc, Anton Rubinstein, and
César Cui—had set or would set some of the same texts. (Rachmaninoff
would set one of the Hugo poems, but in Russian translation.) Lalo’s
renderings turn out to be remarkably different from theirs, yet just as apt. In
a number of cases Lalo keeps the setting relatively short, with the result that
the music mirrors the poem instead of overwhelming it (as Liszt, for example,
sometimes comes close to doing). “Puisqu’ici-bas” echoes the
poem’s alternation of long and short lines, producing unusual, yet
satisfying, three-bar phrases (2+1). Many of the songs have an essential
strophic underpinning, but later strophes often modulate to related keys and
develop the material, thereby echoing the text’s increasing emotional

Sometimes Lalo even convinces us, through his music, that a rather
conventional poem is a masterpiece of psychological insight. A particularly
touching example is “Tristesse,” by Armand Silvestre. Some
strikingly regret-filled lines: “We passed—so it seems to
me—close to each other without seeing each other, . . . without knowing
that our hearts beat together. . . . We would no doubt have suffered, but at
least we would have loved!” The prelude in the piano—a yearning
melody over slowly descending chords and a low tonic pedal—casts a
sweet-sad mood that colors everything that follows. As Graham Johnson keenly
observes, the song “shows the composer at his most simple and

Lalo responds with special vividness to texts that invoke a distinctive
locale: for example, “Le novice” (about a passionate young man who,
having joined a monastery, is now chafing under its constraints), “La
fenaison” (about village life at harvest-time), “La Zuecca”
(recalling the pleasures of Venice), and “Adieu au désert”
(sung by a dark-skinned tribal chieftain who lives by an oasis in Arabia or
Northern Africa and here exhorts his horse-riding troops: “Let us make
war against the Christians!”). Lalo’s setting of Gautier’s
“L’esclave” (The Harem Slave) is fully the equal of fine
songs written to similar texts by other composers. I am thinking, notably, of
the young Berlioz’s “La captive” (with cello obbligato, text
by Hugo) and Félicien David’s setting of Gautier’s
“Tristesse de l’odalisque.” “Le chant breton” (on
a pseudo-folk text evoking rural Brittany) includes an important oboe part that
evokes a shepherd’s simple pipe. The musical “shepherd” is
here quasi-enacted, with enchanting naiveté, by Johannes Grosso, first
oboist at the Frankfurt Opera.

Lalo’s piano parts are demanding, richly interesting in themselves,
and responsive to details in the text (e.g., someone knocking at a door). The
accompaniment to “L’aube naît” is redolent of Schumann
at his best (e.g., “Mondnacht”).
“Puisqu’ici-bas,” if stripped of its vocal part, could almost
pass for a Mendelssohn-like “Venetian Gondola Song.” Yet that vocal
line is no mere declamation laid on top, but rather shapely and expressive,
despite—or because of—its three-bar phrases. In
“Guitare,” the piano evokes Spain through strumming figures, and
the vocal part gestures toward folk song—if not Spain in
particular—by its pure diatonicism, its limited range of an octave, and
its simple, balanced phrases.

Tassis Christoyannis performs major roles in opera houses
across Europe
(including Germont at the Royal Opera,
Covent Garden)
. Throughout this recording he once again proves himself a
major interpreter of song. (I loved his recent CD
of eighteen songs—most of which had never been recorded before—by
the aforementioned Félicien David
. The voice is firmly
supported—except at times in the lowest register—and remains
vividly “present” when the singer moves into an intimate
half-voice. In the six Béranger songs, Christoyannis makes each of the
many strophes specific and fresh. Throughout the collection, he sounds—by
turns—playful, pompous, bitter, yearning, pitiable, and much else. He
even ends a drinking song (Béranger’s “Les petits
coups”) with an engaging chuckle that seems perfectly in character, not
in any way forced. His remarkable vocal and expressive resources help him put
across several songs (e.g., “Marine” and “À celle qui
part”) that—in the manner of an operatic scene or
soliloquy—include passages of rather free (but sung, not spoken)

One minor quibble: Christoyannis’s French pronunciation is
occasionally non-native. The z sound in “mes amours” becomes an s,
and certain vowels are too open: the word “ou” (meaning
“or”) can become a somewhat puzzling “oh” and the word
“vive” sounds as if it is, ungrammatically, “vivez.”
Still, one always senses that Christoyannis understands what he is singing. His
way of caressing a phrase such as “mystérieuse messagère”
(i.e., “mysterious messenger”—in “À une
fleur,” to a text by Musset) conveys the poet’s image in memorable

Jeff Cohen gives alert and appropriate support through all the different
moods of these songs. He is wonderfully fleet-fingered in the multiple
twitterings of “La chanson de l’alouette” (Song of the Lark).
I particularly enjoyed, in the early song “Le novice,” Lalo’s
evocation of a choir of monks singing. The composer, imaginatively, places this
chordal passage first in the piano’s ethereal upper register, then
gradually brings it into darker, more solemn regions, integrating it into the
song’s onward flow. (Unfortunately, in some songs, Cohen’s
instrument seems a little distant from the microphone. When I turn up the
volume to catch the harmonies and figurations, the singer’s voice becomes
uncomfortably loud.)

The poems make for fascinating reading. In certain cases, Lalo has selected
and rearranged stanzas from a longer poem to make an effective song text. The
poet’s version can often be found online at, along with several
different translated versions. A poet’s indentation of shorter lines can
be interesting, since it may have affected how the composer
“heard”—and therefore set—the poem. For four of the
songs, truly admirable texts and translations—properly indented—can
be found in Graham Johnson and Richard Stokes’s widely hailed A
French Song Companion
(Oxford, paperback).

In the CD booklet, the poetic texts are printed flush-left. The translations
(by Mark Wiggins) are largely adequate, but the attempt to hew closely to the
poet’s word choice and laconic syntax may confuse some readers. A
powerful phrase in Béranger’s “Le vieux
vagabond”—“Vieux vagabond, je ne vous maudis
pas”—does not mean, as the booklet has it, “Old vagabond, I
will not curse you,” as if the character in the song were addressing an
impoverished homeless man. Rather, the character is himself the
“vieux vagabond,” and his word “vous”—in this
case—is a plural “you,” referring to rich people and
tradesmen who did little to help the man learn a trade earlier in life. He is
thus declaring, with a combination of bitterness and dignity: “[I may be
nothing but] an old beggar/homeless person, [yet] I will not curse you
[all].” As for Musset’s witty and tightly constructed
“Ballade à la lune,” the translation in Johnson/Stokes, or the
one by Barbara Miller at, can
help correct some errors in Wiggins’s rendering. For example, it is not
the “history of [the moon’s] dashing loves” that “will
ever be made more attractive.” The poet’s point is, rather, that
the stories or legends about the moon make “you” (the moon)
lovelier in our collective mind. Wiggins has overlooked the crucial
“t’”—i.e., “you.”

Great songs can support a wide range of vocal styles and interpretive
approaches. Interested listeners will want to compare Christoyannis’s
performances to previous ones that are either still commercially available
or—if not—can often be found in major academic and public libraries
or have been uploaded to YouTube. “Guitare” has been recorded on
CDs by singers thin-toned (Marie Devellereau), medium-weight (Felicity Lott,
Konstantin Wolff), and plush (Susan Graham). Bruno Laplante—a
French-Canadian baritone who studied with the eminent Pierre
Bernac—performs ten Lalo songs (and eight by Bizet) on an LP from 1983,
with sincerity and elegant French pronunciation but also with a constant quick
flutter in the tone that I find distracting. On a Rodolphe CD from 1987,
renowned Polish opera star Teresa Zylis-Gara, with magnificent vocal command,
offers all but one of the twenty-three mature songs (omitting the first setting
of “Amis, vive l’orgie,” from Op. 17), plus two Béranger
settings from the early years. (She sings two strophes—rather than all
six—in each of the Béranger songs.) She also includes
“Humoresque,” a fascinating number that is actually an excerpt from
the opera Fiesque. In certain songs, Zylis-Gara chooses slow tempos,
apparently to allow her sizable voice to bloom, and she adds numerous
well-judged portamenti. Her interpretation of the texts is often somewhat
generalized (M/J 1996).

complete songs were recorded once before (on the Passavant label, 2010), sung
by veteran baritone François Le Roux. To judge by two Hugo songs that can
be streamed at the label’s website
, Le Roux’s voice
was—by the time he made these recordings—no longer firm enough to
convey all his intended artistry. On the plus side, he handles the texts with
ease, and Christian Ivaldi’s brilliant and stylish pianism is captured in
full detail by the microphone. (Ivaldi was just as wonderful on the Zylis-Gara
CD, made over twenty years earlier.)

In short, despite the existence of some admirable prior recordings, anyone
wanting to discover a new side of Edouard Lalo—and a treasure trove of
great French songs—would do best to start with Christoyannis and
Cohen’s marvelous new 2-CD set.

Ralph P. Locke

Ralph P. Locke is Professor Emeritus of Musicology at the University of
Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. He wrote about French symphonies,
including Lalo’s, in D. Kern Holoman, ed., The Nineteenth-Century
(Schirmer Books, 1996). We thank the American Record
, where his review of the Lalo songs first appeared, for kindly
permitting us to publish the present, expanded version.

image_description=Aparte AP110
product_title=Lalo: Complete Songs
product_by=Tassis Christoyannis, baryton; Jeff Cohen, piano; Johannes Grosso, oboe hautbois
product_id=Aparte AP110 [2CDs]