Véronique Gens / Alexandre Bloch

Chausson: Poème de l'Amour et de la Mer; Symphonie Op. 20

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Ernest Chausson, tagged with the deadly "transitional" descriptor (in this case, between French Romanticism and Debussy), is known mostly for his violin-and-orchestra Poème, Op. 25. His music is entirely distinctive, however, involving the structural thinking of his teacher, César Franck, the big orchestral palette and chromatic harmony of Wagner, and a very French inward quality that is all his own. The sum result is a style that seems to look forward to the psychological qualities of Debussy's music. All these qualities are on display in this pair of works, neither of which is terribly commonly performed. The big news here is the marvelous performance by Véronique Gens, who goes from strength to strength these days even as she enters her sixth decade. The marvelously titled Poème de l'amour et de la mer, Op. 19, which Chausson worked on for several years and completed in 1890, is an unconventionally structured work, with outer vocal movements each encompassing settings of multiple poems flanking a short central interlude. Here Chausson is more Wagnerian than usual, with a tense, turbulent, yet melancholy rendering of the end of a love affair. Gens hits the music on the nose with an unsettled reading that avoids the typical floating French mélodie textures: she gives the music some guts, and it responds well. (Sample the second of the two vocal movements.) She gets strong support from the Orchestre National de Lille under Alexandre Bloch, who also excel in the Symphony in B flat major, Op. 20, a sort of compressed outburst that incorporates sonata form and Franck's cyclical form in an intense discourse before retreating to a beautiful serenity at the end. Beautifully recorded by Alpha, this is an absolute must for Gens' many admirers.

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