Perhaps no one in modern times has done more for the by-ways of art song in recordings than Graham Johnson, particularly for the Hyperion label. This 2-CD set of the songs of Emmanuel Chabrier is yet another demonstration of that advocacy. The album is titled 'Musique adorable!', and that is a pretty decent way of describing the generally genial nature of Chabrier's music and the songs here. Likewise, most of the texts are of a sunny nature, sometimes cheeky or snarky, although a very few of the texts do touch on darker territory.
The songs contain a few surprises, including Chabrier's own setting of 'L'invitation au voyage', which he unfortunately happened to compose pretty much contemporaneously with Duparc's celebrated setting. Recognizing the superiority of Duparc's song, Chabrier suppressed his own version, which seems a shame, as its worth hearing on its own terms, even if it is obviously no match for Duparc. To add to the surprise aspect of this setting, Chabrier includes a bassoon as instrumental accompaniment with the piano; it's difficult to think of another art song that uses piano and bassoon to accompany the singer. Another surprise is a vocal version of Chabrier's orchestral work 'Espana', with appropriately jolly and not-terribly logical words, i.e. there really isn't a story as such to tell, but was simply a way to get 'Espana' into peoples homes outside of concert halls.
In his typically extensive liner notes, Johnson notes Chabrier's tendency not to set the greatest, or at least better, of French poets, although a few famous names filter into his choices of poets and poems to set, like Victor Hugo, Edmond Rostand, his one choice of Baudelaire. He also notes how Chabrier seemed to let one of his more frequent literally collaborators, Catulle Mendes, almost take him for a ride in the folk-song collection 'Les plus jolies chansons du pays de France', where Chabrier was one of two composers to arrange those French folk-songs for publication, but where Mendes came out the much better financially, somehow. BTW, the "(abridged)" in the header comes from the trimming of several strophes from 9 of Chabriers settings, in order to fit all the music on two CDs. In those strophic songs, the melodies in each song remain the same, but parts of the stories get cut as a result, which Johnson acknowledges.
As you would expect from Johnson, he guides the proceedings from the piano with a sure hand throughout. Felicity Lott and Stephen Varcoe are old friends and collaborators with Johnson dating back to the days of the Songmakers' Almanac, and exercise their sure and comfortable touch when working with Johnson. Perhaps Lott veers on slipping into the edge into slightly arch mannerism on occasion, but if so, it's not for long. The American tenor William Burden is the third singer who gets the main share of songs, 11 of them, vs. 19 for Lott and 11 for Varcoe. His French pronunciation is a bit borderline strained at times, but not enough to hinder enjoyment. Two singers closer to the respective starts of their careers, Geraldine McGreevy and Toby Spence, get cameo appearances, 2 songs and 1, respectively, and do well also.
Admittedly, this writer isn't sure that most of the songs would immediately strike listeners as neglected masterpieces. But the listening is never less than engaging and interesting. For admirers of Graham Johnson and those interested in French art song from off the beaten path, this 2-CD set comes highly recommended.