The story of 19th- and early-20th-century French music is as much social as it is musical. All across Paris, the wealthy and well connected would throw open their doors to artists, philosophers, writers, poets, and, of course, musicians. Even in a city that prided itself for world premiere performances, there were precious few opportunities to hear songs and music for smaller ensembles. So the “soirée” became an invaluable forum for such new works. Audiences were small and appreciative—and the food and drink flowed freely. Most of the songs in Paysage are products of this heady salon culture, and were premiered in their original versions for voice and piano. Some, however, were subsequently rearranged for orchestra, but never performed as such. It’s these that we get to hear on this impressively researched and beautifully performed album. “There are hundreds of these songs, but they’re lost,” says soprano Véronique Gens, who together with the Palazzetto Bru Zane—otherwise known as the Centre for Romantic French Music—have rediscovered a musical treasure trove. “These versions were lost because the composers arranged them as presents for singers. And the singers kept the orchestrations in their houses and amongst their things. When they died, nobody knew about them. All these songs are like jewels, and with orchestra they are even more beautiful.” Take, for instance, Fauré’s “Les Roses d’Ispahan” from his 4 Mélodies Op. 39, a song for voice and piano that many singers have in their repertoire. Hardly anyone, however, has heard it in its orchestrated form. “I’d been singing many of these songs so many times before with piano,” says Gens, “and suddenly the color was so different—everything was so much easier with an orchestra. “‘Les Roses d’Ispahan’ is a very beautiful song, and it represents so well the French song and the melancholy atmosphere many of them have,” continues Gens. “They’re not like Schubert lieder where, when you are desperate, you really are desperate and you want to die. With French song, when you are desperate, it’s in a soft way, in an elegant way. It’s always melancholy, but it’s a nice melancholy. It makes you almost feel good.” Gens also highlights the songs by Théodore Dubois, an unknown composer except among organists for his Toccata in G. “I like very much ‘Celui que j’aime’—there is something very honest about it,” she says. “It’s so direct, and the harmonies are very simple. I also love his two small orchestral pieces, the Petits rêves d’enfants. They’re just amazing, and it’s not fair that Dubois just disappeared from history.” The heart to much of the diaphanous music on Paysage, which also includes works by Hahn, Chausson, Gounod, Saint-Saëns, and Massenet, lies in the texts themselves. For Gens, the poetry, much of it about love, is as important as the notes, so for non-French speakers it’s worth hunting out the translations to them. “The composers rely on the text, and the colors they give to them are overwhelming—they shine a special light on every single word. The music really does carry the text.” Which means that singers don’t have to impose their own interpretations. Everything is there in the score. “It’s not a question of having a big voice and making a big noise,” says Gens. “We are here to tell a story, and to offer something very delicate and very special. It’s already so beautiful, so there’s nothing to add, no mannerism. You just have to sing it with your heart and then everything will be there.”

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