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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Treasury Of Song, 28 Sep 2013
Sordel (United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Suivre L'Etoile (Audio CD)
By the time that he made protracted farewell to the stage amid scenes of high emotion in 1966-7 Brel was already one of the most celebrated chanteurs of his day, yet he was still short of his 40th birthday and about to embark on a successful film career. The seventeen hours of music on these 21 discs tell the story of a man who would become regarded as one of the greatest singer-songwriters yet whose extraordinary achievements are still far too little known outside French-speaking countries.

This is not the "complete" Brel: the soundtracks to his television appearances are not here (you must seek them out separately on the fine 3-DVD set Comme Quand on Etait Beau) and one suspects that there must be more live material yet to be issued. Nevertheless, it is much the most complete Brel ever compiled and offers the complete studio albums (with bonus tracks) on the first 13 discs. The remaining eight discs are all live and include three new concerts including Brel's final concert at Roubaix from 1967.

Naturally there is a lot of repetition within the set (six versions, for example, of "Le Moribond" and seven of "Madeleine") but the repetition is less onerous than you might expect. Songs vary significantly in their arrangements, performances and recording, even when they were recorded at much the same time. One striking example of this is the two versions of "Vivre Debout": one with Spanish guitar & maracas and the other featuring a flamenco singer & two declamatory trumpets.

It is fascinating to hear songs transition from their studio versions to the rather triumphant style of performance that Brel gave in concert during the zenith of his popularity and then to the heavy sentimentality of his farewell tour. For example, "La Valse A Mille Temps", which begins life as fairly untroubled piece ornamented with flute, accordion and piano becomes more barbed in the stripped down performance at Lausanne in 1960. By Olympia '61 this version has become more of a party piece, its force emphasized by exuberant brass. By the time Brel recorded a second studio version with a completely different orchestration in 1972, however, the song had become less about the velocity with which its tongue-twisting lyric could be sung than the nostalgia of the lyric, which looks back on a life lived at an accelerated pace, rather like Brel's own.

Unlike most large boxed sets it is difficult to identify a weak disc here. The final concert is so close in setlist to Olympia 1966 that it is here mainly for its historical significance, but the fact that it uses more spare arrangements makes a further case for its inclusion.

At quarter of an hour, the intimate live recording from Trois Baudets in 1957 is very short but fills a gap in the story, providing the only live versions on the set of "La Bourrée Du Célibataire" & "L'Air De La BÍtise" as well as a fascinating glimpse of Brel only two albums into his career.

The fact that the entire set has been remastered from the original masters ensures that these are probably the "cleanest" versions of this material available, but unfortunately the discs have been mastered very loud, ensuring that the dynamic range has been somewhat compressed and, more seriously, introducing occasional distortion where none was heard previously. For the overwhelming majority of listeners, these will be the best-sounding versions.

In terms of physical presentation, this set has great pride of ownership with both the folder that houses the discs and the large-format book being very well designed and seemingly sturdy. Discs cannot fall out (I even held the set upside down and shook it ... though only for the purposes of this review, not because it's a hobby!) and the spine allows the book to either lie open or flat on its front, which is helpful.

If you're hovering on purchasing this because 21 discs of Brel sounds like too many by far, you might be pleasantly surprised, and this set seems to add about sixty tracks never previously available on CD or vinyl.

Overall - for anyone with more than a passing interest in French song - this would seem to be an immensely desirable purchase.
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Suivre L'Etoile
Suivre L'Etoile by Jacques Brel (Audio CD - 2013)
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