Véronique Gens: "BERLIOZ: Herminie, Les Nuits d'Été; RAVEL: Shéhérazade"
Orchestre National des Pays de la Loire, Axelrod. Ondine 1200-2
Véronique Gens is one of contemporary France's finest sopranos. Trained and active initially in the Baroque repertory, she now appears in leading European theaters in a range of roles from Iphigénie and Donna Elvira to Eva and Alice Ford. Her few American appearances (New York, Tanglewood, Boston) have been in concert, among them Diana in Charpentier's Actéon and Purcell's Dido, with William Christie, more than twenty years ago.
On recordings Gens has emerged as a protean, idiomatic interpreter of French music spanning several centuries and styles. Besides three fine discs of varied and demanding arias, her discography includes an admirable 2001 all-Berlioz disc for Virgin Classics with Louis Langrée, pairing La Mort de Cléopâtre (the composer's third attempt at a Prix de Rome cantata) with Les Nuits d'Été. For Ondine, Gens returns to the sublime set of six songs to texts by Théophile Gautier and gives an even deeper reading, with increased vocal expansiveness and color. Working with the capable, supportive American conductor John Axelrod and his forces (based in Angers and Nantes), Gens offers interpretations in almost all cases slower than her 2001 versions. (The exception is "L'Absence," which loses twenty-four seconds in the newer traversal.) The soulful, astounding drop to "linceul" (in "Sur les lagunes") sounds much more natural here. While Gens's phrasing and feeling are consistently pleasing, her pronunciation, however idiomatic, is not always crystalline.
The disc opens with Berlioz's second Prix de Rome attempt, Herminie (1828). Its neoclassical pair of recits and trio of arias should be better known. (The noteworthy recorded versions thus far have been by Janet Baker and Mireille Delunsch.) Some of the orchestral music gets quoted in the Symphonie Fantastique. Gens gives the piece the dignity, fire and vocal sheen it deserves and is well accompanied by Axelrod's players. Gens and Axelrod bring rather less sensuality of timbre and approach to Ravel's three-song cycle Shéhérazade than it ideally requires (or than oozes from every syllable sung by Régine Crespin in her classic account with Ernest Ansermet). Gens offers a worthy, musicianly reading, certainly — perhaps best in the lightly handled "L'Indifférent" — but not a deeply memorable one. However, the high quality of execution and expression evident in the Berlioz works make this CD highly recommendable.
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