Léo Ferré

Verlaine et Rimbaud Chantés par Léo Ferré

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This LP is the third and final volume in singer/songwriter Léo Ferré's series of tributes to French symbolist poets. After Baudelaire and Apollinaire, he turns to the damned pair of Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud. The latter's brief but blinding career and his love affair with the former, his mentor, remain among the most tormented -- and freely interpretable -- pages in 19th century French literature. But Ferré is more interested in the musicality of their verses than the modernity in some of Rimbaud's poems, or the tension between debauchery and Christian mysticism in Verlaine's. His choice of poems jumps over Rimbaud's most arcane poetry (Une Saison en Enfer, the famous Vowels) to focus on his more mundane works ("Le Buffet," "Chanson de la Plus Haute Tour"). As for Verlaine, he goes with the classics, opening with "Écoutez la Chanson Bien Douce" (Listen to the Sweet Song), almost obligatory under these circumstances -- and not forgetting "Art Poétique" (beginning with the verse "Music before anything else..."). His musical approach is that of a typical French chansonnier: polished melodies backed by a music hall piano and string ensemble -- think Edith Piaf, Jacques Brel, or Charles Trénet. Jean-Michel Defaye's arrangements and musical direction lack some risk-taking, leading to potentially powerful poetry being transformed into lamentable ballads -- the cynicism and plain sexual abuse of "Mes Petites Amoureuses" fizzles out; "Ma Bohème" is given too much of a pastoral treatment. Good ideas include a highly dramatic "Les Poètes de Sept Ans" (a wink at Brel's vocal delivery?) and the luscious jazz of "Pensionnaires" (two teen lesbians, almost graphic). This album presents Ferré the stylist and melodist, not the celebrated anarchic poet.