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Tuesday, November 01, 2005
The Exquisite Hour
Marie-Nicole Lemieux, contralto
Daniel Blumenthal, piano
Naïve Classique

There is what I am sure is a largely apocryphal story regarding an enamored young man who, upon meeting Dawn Upshaw after a recital of early 20th century vocal music, was only able to find the words: “Ms. Upshaw … you don’t have orange lips.”

After absorbing Quebecois contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux’s recent and aptly titled album, L’heure Exquise, I am sure that, should I ever have the honor of joining her for a post-recital reception, I will only be able to say: “Ms. Lemieux, you truly are exquisite!”

To be truthful, more often than not I am left a little flat after hearing vocal-piano music on compact disc. Logically it would seem that such an intimate art form would translate well to the one-on-one listener/performer relationship of today’s podded world. But, in my experience, rarely does one get from a recording the buzz that runs up ones spine when hearing a beautiful live voice fill a concert hall with song.

This disc is a major exception. I haven’t enjoyed a CD of art song this much since the 1997 Dawn Upshaw and James Levine recording “Forgotten Songs: Dawn Upshaw Sings Debussy.” Perhaps because I am a sucker for mélodie, or an even bigger sucker for a true contralto, I was immediately drawn into the world of this recording, imagining myself sitting among friends in a French cabaret, all of us enraptured by the voice of the Chat Noir’s hottest young chanteuse.

The literature here is decidedly impressionistic; Lush, fluid, and yummy. For Ms. Lemieux’s second album on the Paris-based Naïve Classique label, close on the heels of her triumphal 2004 recording Vivaldi’s Orlando Furioso, she has chosen to tackle a wide swath of French mélodie from Ernest Chausson, Claude Debussy, Georges Enesco, and Reynaldo Hahn. These four exceedingly different composers, contemporaries of each other, found common ground in the mélodie, an intimate and late development in chanson form. This is a style to which many turn-of-the-twentieth-century composers of varying styles returning again and again, much like an accomplished poet trying his hand at a sonnet in order to keep his technique fresh. This is a harmonically and rhythmically complex music idiomatic of its age and just on the verge of becoming modern. Through this music we can hear the bridge from Massenet and Berlioz to Poulenc, Fauré, and, then much later, Messiaen.

Romanian composer Georges Enesco, the most contemporary of the composer’s represented on this recording, lived a double life of sorts, having settled in Paris, but always influenced by his beloved home land. In his day, he was known primarily as a violinist and pianist, gaining a reputation as one of the great interpreters of music, but he has come to be known as a composer of great sensitivity and innovation. His song cycle, “Sept Chansons de Clement Marot” of 1908, sets the poems of Medieval French poet Clement Marot in a straightforward and almost folk-like manner that perfectly sets the mood for the remainder of the recording.

Chausson presents a darker, richer sound informed by the chromatic language of Wagner and Franck in four separate songs, one to Baudelaire, the remainder to Paul Varlaine. One can hear in Ms. Lemieux’s handling of these denser songs a core to her voice and emotions that, after the lighter fare on this disc, ground us again.

Debussy’s fingerprint is also here, with his 1904 cycle “Fêtes Galantes II,” also to poems of Verlaine. This is classic Debussy art song at its best; flowing, surprising and satisfying.

But the real treasure on this disc is Ms. Lemieux and Mr. Blumenthal’s expansive interpretations of the mélodie of Reynaldo Hahn that form the bulk of this recording. Hahn, a native of Venezuela, but of German heritage, was Marcel Proust’s lover and a darling of Parisian salons to which he was introduced at a very young age. Hahn’s mélodie, often neglected in the states for the work of his contemporaries, form the majority of his output, along with opera and operetta. These classically inspired pieces simply float on Ms. Lemieux’s voice, suspended in the ether of Mr. Blumenthal’s playing.

While Ms. Lemieux has barely been singing for a decade, there is a deepness, warmth, and complexity to her instrument that belies her youth. Though her standard repertoire covers everything from Vivaldi to Wagner, it is in this French language music that she truly shines. This recording confirms her place as one of the 21st century’s bright new young stars.

A perfect match to Ms. Lemieux’s dulcet tone is the masterful and moving accompaniment of American pianist Daniel Blumenthal. A luminary of the chamber and vocal music scenes for over two decades, Mr. Blumenthal handles the deceptively tricky and ever moving melissmatic piano lines of these plush scores with the ease of a gold medal figure skater.

If you are a consummate modernist, or eschew the romantic trappings of any music pre-Stravinsky, then please avoid this disc at all costs.

However, if you are a connoisseur of mélodie, or should you want to expand your French-music-consciousness from the ever-present art-song styles of Ravel and Debussy, then this is the disc for which you have been waiting. Or, for you those of you with little knowledge of the form but with a taste for the finer things in life, buy this disc, set a table for two, light a candle, and listen while dining on foie gras, morels, and fine red wine.

This disc is truly an exquisite hour of song.


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