Bru Zane Presents Hahn’s Complete Songs

Hahn Songs

HAHN: Études Latines: Néère; Salinum; Lydé; Vile potabis; Tyndaris; Pholoé; Phyllis. Venezia: Sopra l’acquoa indormenzada; La barcheta; L’avertimento; La Biondina in gondoleta; Che pecà!; La primavera. Chansons grises: Chanson d’automne; Tous deux; L’Allée est sans fin; En sourdine; L’Heure exquise; Paysage triste; La Bonne Chanson. Unpublished melodies: Adoration [Hymne à Cléo]; Fleur de mon âme. La Dame aux camellias: Mon rêve était d’avoir un amant; C’est à Paris; Au fil de l’eau. Premier Recueil: Rêverie; Si mes vers avaient des ailes; Mai; Paysage; L’Énamourée; Seule; La Nuit; Offrande; Trois lours de vendange; Infidélité; Fêtes galantes; Cimetière de champagne; Fleur fanée; L’Incrédule; Les Cygnes; D’une prison; Dernier Vœu; Séraphine; Nocturne. Rondels: Je me metz en vostre mercy; Le Printemps; L’Air; La Paix; Le Pêche; Quand je fus pris au pavillon; Les Étoiles; L’Automne; Le Souvenie d’avoir chanté. Les Feuilles blesses: Dans le ciel est dressé le chêne sêculaire; Encor sur le pave sonne mon pas nocturne; Quand reviendra l’automne avec ses deulles mortes; Belle Lune d’argent; Quand le viendra m’asseoir; Eau printanière; Donc, vous allez fleurir encore; Compagne de l’éther; Pendant que je médite; Roses en bracelet; Aux rayons du couchant. Second Recueil: Quand la nuit n’est pas étoile; Cantique; La Délaisée; La Chère Blessure; Théone; Chanson au bord de la fontaine; Sur l’eau; Les Fontaines; À Chloris; Le Rossignol des lilas; À nos morts ignores; Ma jeunesse; Le Plus Beau Présent; Puisque j’ai mis lèvre; La Douce Paix. Troisième Volume: Aimons nous!; À une étoile; Dans l’été; Au pays musulman; Oh! For the wings of a dove!; Adieu; J’ai cache dans la rose en pleurs; Naguère, au temps des eglantines; Danse, petite siréne; La Marchand de marrons; Vocalise-Étude. Neuf Mélodies retrouvées: Je me souviens; La Vie est belle; L’Amitié; Chanson; Naïs; La Nymphe de la souree; Au rossignol; Ta main; Sous l’oranger [Tango habanera]. 5 Little Songs: The Swing; Windy Night; My Ship and I; The Stars; A Good Boy. Love Without Wings: Ah! Could I clasp thee in mine arms; The Fallen Oak; I Know You Love Me Not / Tassis Christoyannis, bar; Jeff Cohen, pno / Bru Zane BZ 2002

Palazetto Bru Zane in Venice, though specializing in older music, has one of the most interesting and eclectic catalogs in the business because they are always exploring between the cracks to bring out lesser-known works in generally very fine quality performances. This, their latest project, is a four-CD set covering the entire song output of Reynaldo Hahn, a composer who is indeed well known but only for about six or seven of his many songs.

The excellent liner notes by Alexandre Dratwicki reaffirm this popular but limited niche that Hahn has fallen into, but also gives some interesting insights that explain a bit of why his reputation always seemed to be lower than that of his contemporaries Debussy, Ravel, Koechlin and Poulenc. The main reason was that he was a stylistic reactionary. Although many of his songs are well constructed and quite beautiful, it is a beauty belonging to the generation before him—the generation of Massenet (one of his teachers), Saint-Saëns, Chausson, Gounod and Godard. He won few major prizes when in the Paris Conservatoire and his first major successes were set up for him by Massenet in the “aristocratic salons” of his time. In other words, his music appealed to older people and the musical reactionaries of his day who did not like Ravel, Debussy or Koechlin. It was the age-old battle of the Old Guard vs. the New that continues to this day, only worse because there are millions more listeners now who insist on the old tonal stuff, even when it’s sentimental and treacly, over even the very best of modern works.

But of course I personally like Hahn’s songs regardless of their retro status, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing a review of them. They are sensitively and cleverly written and have real substance about them—at least, the seven or eight songs I’ve heard for most of my life.

Interestingly, most of the “core” Hahn songs by which he is known were recorded for G&T, Victor and Columbia in the acoustic era by some of the biggest names in singing—Victor Maurel, Nellie Melba, Alma Gluck, Marcella Sembrich, Jeanne Gerville-Réache, Mary Garden, Maggie Teyte, Emma Eames, Ada Crossley, Carmela Ponselle, Lillian Nordica and Geraldine Farrar—which is probably why only those specific songs lodged themselves in the consciousness of classical music lovers. Hahn’s own recordings, however, were not given “star” status either on G&T (the early version of HMV) or Victor, being issued in the U.S. on their cheaper Blue Label discs rather than on Red Seal. I merely point this out because I find it interesting. His songs sung by big names got the royal treatment, but the composer himself was demoted to a lesser label. Incidentally, there’s a treat awaiting you if you are so inclined: Hahn himself singing and playing three songs by Chabrier (Toutes les fleurs, Les Cigales and L’ile heureuse) and two songs of his own (Offrande and Venezia – Chè pecà) by clicking HERE.

The liner notes include some interesting comments by Hahn on singing in general. He stressed three facets of singing: Vocalise, phrasing and lyric declamation. Later on, he said that it would be a nice extra but not necessary for a singer to master such elements as “messa di voce, ornaments of all kinds, arpeggios, ascending and descending diatonic and chromatic scales sung legato or staccato, etc.,” but “it cannot be denied that vocalise is a first-rate exercise for the very singers whose voices, talents and roles do not require agility.” Interestingly, Toscanini took the same view, telling baritone Giuseppe Valdengo how Mattia Battistini always warmed up by repeating the two opening phrases of “Da quell di” from Ernani over and over again but without the words, just singing the phrase using different vowel sounds.

If I had one complaint about the set, it was that Jeff Cohen underplayed his accompaniments too much. At times, you’re only vaguely aware that there’s a pianist present at all, whereas if you listen to Hahn’s own recordings his piano playing is full of richness and color, much like Alfred Cortot. But of course, in songs it’s the singer who really counts, and in that respect the set is in good hands.

Tassis Christoyannis has what I’d describe as an archetypal high French baritone voice, complete with the light flicker-vibrato so typical even of good French singers, which is surprising because he is Greek and studied singing with Italian baritone Aldo Protti, who generally sang with unsteadiness in sustained tones. Christoyannis’ voice has no unsteadiness whatever, and his timbre is exceptionally beautiful, belying his age of 52. His singing of these songs is of the “old” French school which took root in the late 19th century and persisted until the mid-20th, which is to sing the lyrics straight with no sense of a dramatic interpretation à la German lieder singers. Gérard Souzay, Régine Crespin and Gabriel Bacquier were among the first French-language singers to change all that, I personally think for the better. If you don’t believe me, check out excerpts from the 1926 recording of Bizet’s Carmen sung by Perelli, De Trevi and Musy. It’s sung without any dramatic inflections whatsoever, and it’s as dull as dishwater.

In these songs, however, Christoyannis is not dull, merely poetic, which is not the same thing. Listen to the way he sings L’Incrédule, for instance, in a melting half-voice, perfectly poised, as he limns the words of Verlaine’s poem with exactly the right expression, or the way he floats L’Heure exquise in half-voice, almost as if in one breath. This is the work of a great artist. We are indeed fortunate to have him singing Hahn’s complete oeuvre this well. Needless to say, I judged his interpretations of the unfamiliar songs by paying close attention to the familiar ones, and at no point in this long recital did he disappoint. Nor does he lack vocal flexibility when needed; he sings several of the mordents in the scores perfectly, and even manages a light trill in one.

So many of these songs are little jewels, musically perfect if not melodically or harmonically challenging, that it would defeat the purpose of this review to describe them all, or even most of them (though I was a bit surprised by the café style of Rêverie). A few are rather plain and not worth remembering, but not many. They all ride smoothly over Christoyannis’ perfect legato and beautiful tonal emission, which is uniform in quality from the top to the bottom of his range. Hahn wisely avoided texts that had a deep, penetrating or dramatic meaning to them, preferring songs of love, flirtation, longing and “long sobs of the violin” because his range of expression was indeed limited. The notes mention his larger works such as the Piano Concerto, the ballets La Fête chez Thérèse and Le Dieu bleu and both operas and operettas, but his Piano Concerto is available for streaming on YouTube and it’s pretty forgettable, common-garden-variety Romantic music, in one ear and out the other. As in the case of Samuel Barber, Hahn’s real milieu was the song. It was brief, compact, made its point and didn’t overstay its welcome. Thus this set is the perfect place to begin and end your interest in Hahn as a composer. Recommended to all lovers of late-Romantic French chanson.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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