Carolyn Sampson’s “Songs of the Auvergne”

BIS-2513 cover

CANTELOUBE: Songs of the Auvergne, excerpts from series 1-5 / Carolyn Sampson, sop; Tapiola Sinfonietta; Pascal Rophé, cond / Bis SACD-2513

Marie-Joseph Canteloube de Malaret (1879-1957) was a French composer of whom almost no one has heard any of the music he actually composed; his fame, during his lifetime and afterwards, is based solely on these arrangements for soprano voice and orchestra of folk songs he had heard in the Auvergne region of France. The first recording, as everyone knows, was only of 11 of the songs sung by French-Jewish soprano Madeleine Grey (née Grumberg) with an ad hoc orchestra conducted by Élie Cohen. It was an immediate success, cementing both Canteloube’s reputation and Grey’s career. In modern times, the most famous and best-loved recording has been the one by the late Arleen Augér with the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Yan Pascal Tortelier on Virgin Classics, a recording that included 16 of the songs.

But there are a lot more than 16 songs in the five series arranged by Canteloube; in fact, there are 31 songs in all. Netania Davrath recorded the full series for Vanguard back in the 1960s with Pierre de la Roche conducting an ad hoc orchestra. Carolyn Sampson gives us 25 of the 31 songs on this new album.

Sampson does a pretty good job on them, but in recent years an uneven flutter has crept into her voice and now, I’m sorry to say, this has become quite obtrusive—this is particularly troublesome in the famous “Bailèro.” In addition, she sings them too “classically,” if you know what I mean. To paraphrase Handel’s Messiah, she makes “the crooked straight and the rough places plain,” but in the singing of folk songs, no matter how skillfully arranged, a bit of oomph and roughness is required, and she just doesn’t have it. Listen to her rendition of “Lo fiolaire”…she simply cannot sing the fast passages with the right bite in the voice. Davrath has it all over her.

Canteloube coverIn addition her conductor, Pascal Rophe, seems to be trying to make the Tapiola Sinfonietta sound like 101 Strings, a strange approach for a man who studied conducting with Pierre Boulez. Perhaps this is also the fault of the engineering, however, which sounded to me as if the orchestra was put in an over-reverberant space, possibly to wow the listener with the SACD sonics. Whichever the case was, it was a bad decision artistically. Rophe’s tempi and rhythmic articulation isn’t all that bad, but it’s a shade slower and less sharply articulated than Tortelier who in turn was a shade slower and less sharply articulated that either Cohen or de la Roche. Indeed, if you play the Davrath-de la Roche recording immediately after listening to this one, you’d almost swear that the recording was being played too fast—yet these were Canteloube’s tempi whether you like them or not.

In short, I’d have to put this recording into the category of a near miss in every respect, vocally and orchestrally. If you’ve had no previous exposure to these songs as sung by Grey, Augér or Davrath, you might think them pretty good, but there is unfortunately a gap between pretty good and great, and there’s no two ways about it, the engineering is simply horrible here. Just listen to “Obdal din lou Limouzi” and you’ll immediately know what I mean. Too much goop and not enough bite to the music.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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