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Recital Media Review Print

Ravishingly Executed French Art Song Cycles

January 4, 2015 - Williamsburg, MA:

The Good Song, Thomas Meglioranza, baritone, Reiko Uchida, piano (Pleyel & Cie, Red Chinoiserie, serial # 51 247, c. 1871); Claude Debussy, Fêtes galantes II, Gabriel Fauré, La Bonne chanson, Op. 61, Francis Poulenc, Le bestiaire, Chansons gailliardes, Maurice Ravel, Deux épigrammes de Clément Marot; Meglioranza/Uchida 003, © 2014, TT 50:15, $14.00. (Listing is alphabetical, not recorded order.)

Some of these song cycles, the Fauré in particular, for which Arkiv Music lists some 31 recordings,* are among the most frequently recorded ones in the French mélodie repertoire. There are 19 others of Poulenc's Le Bestiare, 9 of the Debussy, and 7 of the Ravel; only with Poulenc's Chansons gaillardes does Meglioranza have just a lone current competitor. A singer, especially a non-native speaker, is taking a huge risk to think that s/he can equal legendary issues, such as Gérard Souzay's – or even sell a CD bearing them.

La Bonne chanson was composed in 1892-94, when Fauré was involved with Emma Bardac, then the wife of an important and wealthy banker who was a music-lover – Claude Debussy was engaged to teach their children piano – who, a decade later, in 1904, became Debussy's second wife. She purportedly sang every song for Fauré with him at the piano as it was completed, and the work is dedicated to her. Several of the other recordings (including four of mine) are sung by women, although it was premièred privately by the baritone Maurice Bagès on April 25, 1894, with Fauré accompanying and, incidentally, with Marcel Proust in attendance – he is said to have loved it. Yet the public première, nearly a year later, on April 20, 1895, at the Société Nationale de Musique concert in the Salle Pleyel (not the present-day one), involved soprano Jeanne Remacle, with the composer at the keyboard of a Pleyel grand. (Debussy's string quartet was also on the program.)

Meglioranza, a graduate of Grinnell College (IA) with a MM from the Eastman School of Music (NY), 2005 winner of the Naumberg Award, and currently on the faculty of the Longy School of Music of Bard College, is a fine interpreter of these cycles, among the best that I have heard. His accent and diction are excellent, close to what, in the language profession, are described as "near-native," meaning that they sound like those of a native speaker but cannot be said to be "native" because the speaker was not born in the country and raised speaking the language. Meglioranza's rendering of the songs, both linguistically and artistically, is outstanding: his delivery and rhythms are fluid and natural; he handles the Chansons gaillardes** magnificently, not an easy task. Few Americans rise to this level because many French sounds do not exist in English and are challenging to master, and the rhythm of speech is completely different.

Uchida is a graduate of the Curtis Institute with a MM from the Mannes College of Music and an Artist Diploma from the Juilliard School, and is currently a member of the faculty of Columbia University. She made her solo début in Carnegie Hall's Weill Recital Hall in 2001 and is also the regular partner of several instrumentalists including Jennifer Koh, David Shifrin, Jaime Laredo, and Sharon Robinson. Her handling of the instrument, a mid-size grand which has a cast iron frame and is cross-strung (so more like a modern piano than the company's earlier parallel-strung all-wooden-framed products that Chopin so loved) is as exquisite as Meglioranza's of the notes and texts of the songs; she is his perfect companion. (Pleyel made its first cast-iron-frame, cross-strung grand instrument in 1869, its first cross-strung baby grand in 1870, and its first cross-strung upright in 1885.) She plays in the French manner, with a light, crisp, precise touch, and although Meglioranza is standing close to and directly in front of the wide-open lid, she never drowns him out; the balance is perfect.

While among the composers presented here, the only one who, to my knowledge, ever owned a Pleyel*** was Debussy, and his several were all uprights lent by the company, so nothing like this instrument. It has a marvelous light, warm, rounded sound and a sweet, mellow timbre perfectly suited to the music, and it is as much a feast for the eyes as for the ears, with its lavish case that resembles one of an 18th century harpsichord, on which the music of the clavecinistes, revered by all these composers, would have been played.**** These composers all based their concepts of piano playing style and of composition for the instrument on those of their 18th century forbears. The piano accompaniment score of these cycles shows it. This instrument has 85 keys, missing the top 3 of a modern one, probably to fit it in this unusual narrower and longer case.

(See the two long multi-part features I wrote for CVNC on these subjects, one of which is linked immediately above. Details about Fauré's Érard are found in Appendix A of the one about the French pianist-composers; details about the SNM, of which Fauré was a founder, are also found in this piece.)

The recording was produced by the renowned Judith Sherman, 1993 and 2007 Grammy Classical producer of the year, and recorded and edited by Jeanne Veloris. The sound is as lovely as the performances.

To match the instrument, the basic ground color for the product is red, the booklet's front cover solid with the title in large white and the artists' names in smaller gold solid-cap letters, all repeated identically on the disc's face. The outside of the folded cardboard sleeve features a close-up photo of the singer's face on the front with his right shoulder wrapping, when opened flat, around to the back, with the repertoire, composers' names in gold, works' titles in white, on the extreme left. A color one from the recording session, pianist seated at the instrument on the left, singer standing behind his music stand on the right, in Klavierhaus' recital hall, whose rear stage wall makes an attractive complementary modern backdrop for the Pleyel Chinoiserie, spreads across its inside, with access to the two pockets (for the disc and the booklet) from inside its spine, in sum, a beautifully and practically designed alternative to the ubiquitous jewel case that is anything but precious.

Brief bios of the artists occupy the top half of the inside of the booklet's front cover, un-numbered page [2], with a close-up color profile photo of Uchida reading a score in the bottom half, above production credits in tiny print at the very bottom. Track listing with timings, individual and total, is found on the left half of page [3] with a black-and-white photo taken during recording occupying the right half. (Note the tasteful visual balance of pages varied by being laid out horizontally and vertically.) Side-by-side texts, slightly marred by a few typos, and translations fill pages [4-14]. Brief descriptions accompanied by photos of the album covers for the duo's two other CDs, both Schubert and both using earlier though not period instruments, occupy page [15], and a color close-up angle photo taken during recording of the right end of the keyboard end/side of the instrument in which the fallboard can also be seen is found on the back cover. The whole is simple but attractive, a tasteful contrast with the lavish gilt-gold-on-red decoration of the instrument itself.

All of this combines to make this CD rise to rest among my preferred recordings of the disc's repertoire. This is what the recording industry classifies as a "vanity" product, but since that industry is no longer willing to take a chance on relatively unknown and unproven-as-blockbuster talents – like Meglioranza and Uchida – many fine musicians today have no choice but to issue their own products. With costs of production for CDs greatly reduced and commercial sales options via the Internet more widely available today than were ever the case in "record" stores, such products can be affordably made, sold at reasonable prices, and aid the careers of musicians who might otherwise not be able to have satisfying and successful ones; some occasionally even "go viral." In days gone by, they would have remained unknown outside their local environs. As a music lover and "critic," I am happy to be able to recognize and help deserving artists like these, and, in this case, encourage you to invest in an extraordinary product. With about 30 minutes of unused playing time on the CD, however, it would have been nice to have included a few more cycles: Debussy's Fêtes galantes I, for starters, as well as his Ariettes oubliées and Chanson de France, and Ravel's Histoires naturelles, all of which would have complemented well those included.

*For the record (no pun intended), I own 10 including this one, as well as 3 others now out of print, one of them by Thierry Félix with Erika Guiomar playing a 1921 Érard concert grand, serial number 109 613, likely similar to, though larger than, the last Érard that Fauré himself owned, from 1914, serial number 104 960, now in the Musée de la musique in Paris.

**… which earns the album its "Warning!; Explicit Lyrics"sticker."

***Poulenc may have owned one….

****Debussy edited the harpsichord music of Jean-Philippe Rameau.