While French art songs seem to be less popular with music lovers and have received less academic attention that the German Lied of say Schubert, Schumann, Brahms or Wolf, in my view, when they're handled sensitively and in the right way (the genre is notoriously elusive), many of the songs are musically evocative and imaginative and are no less deeply-felt creations than their German counter-parts.
However, I'd so far only listened to French songs sung by female singers like Claire Croiza, Maggie Teyte, Veronique Gens and Christine Schafer such that the performances by baritone Christopher Maltman on this new release of Debussy songs by Hyperion represents the first time I heard French songs sung by a male voice. Without having the benefit of accustoming myself with the acclaimed recordings of French (including Debussy) songs by, say, Francois de Roux, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and, above all, Pierre Bernac, I can't say if the singing of Maltman, winner of the Lieder Prize in the 1997 Cardiff Singer of the World Competition, can fully convey the beauty and truth of the 21 Debussy songs included here, which are more or less arranged in order of publication from¡§Nuit d'etoiles¡¨to the¡§Trois Ballades de Francois Villon¡¨and can therefore show very clearly how the composer's vocal and instrumental styles have morphed from 1880 through 1910 ¡V a remarkable journey in its own right. However, I must say that Maltman's vocalism is superb and it is worthwhile to have this recording for such refined and technically accomplished singing alone. The singer's attention to detail is also impressive for he is able to colour his voice in myriad of different ways, often within the same phrase, and his honeyed pianissimo singing (even in a high register) as well as the exquisite way by which he executes a diminuendo are veritable object lessons on how these should be handled. His singing also has the requisite power and heft when needed, as in¡§Cinq Poemes de Baudelaire".
Since I have not listened to that many recordings of these songs, I won't be commenting on whether Maltman's interpretations are fully idiomatic or not. However, his singing is always heart-felt and natural sounding, and while he may not be as close to the composer's intentions as Croiza, as charming as Teyte or as sensuous as Gens, I actually felt more moved by the music when listening to Maltman's accounts, which appear to be emotionally deeper-etched in certain ways and more "down-to-earth" (in a positive sense). In any event, my feelings towards this music are certainly quite different from the case when these songs are being interpreted by a female voice, which appear to be the more usual alternative in the record catalogues.
Malcolm Martineau provides sensitive support on the piano, although I found the tone of the instrument to be a little strange (somewhat muffled in a resonant way in some, but not all, of the tracks). Otherwise, this is, to me at least, a very enjoyable recording. One can also find in the CD booklet an excellent essay on the songs by Roger Nichols, artist biographies as well as the full texts (with English translation). The presentation is exemplary.