This impressive Hungarian release pairs a young soprano from that country, the fortuitously named Gabriella Létai Kiss, with the little-known songs of César Franck -- the songs are claimed here to be receiving their first recordings. The works span Franck's career, from a group written in the early 1840s, when he was about 20, to murky, organ-like compositions from the last year of his life. Influential in the earlier ones are not only Schumann but also Schubert, whose genius was first coming into full view during this period. Sample the very first song, Souvenance (Memory), which despite the specifically French landscapes in its lyrics is strongly suggestive of Gretchen am Spinnrade. The songs seem to distill the various phases of Franck's compositional style down to a two-person size (one song has a cello as well) -- no mean feat in the later works, which draw both on Franck's turn toward the organ and on his encounter with Wagner's operas. Most unusual is a very late song, La procession (The Procession, track 4), that matches a rather pantheistic text with a setting resembling an actual organ processional, with a steady advance of block chords. This and the other late songs have some of the somber mystery of the music from late in Liszt's life, but there is always a strain of pure melody that holds all the contents of the album together. Kiss and accompanist Adrienne Hauser are marvelous interpreters of this material. Although the booklet essay runs through Franck's song-composing career chronologically, the songs do not appear on the album in chronological order. Instead they follow a logical sequence in which the more limpid and lyrical early songs provide rest spaces between more intense pieces. The booklet reader has to do some flipping around, but the program makes sense. And Kiss modulates her voice so smoothly between lyric lines and the meatier, more chromatic lines of the middle stages of a song like Le vase brisé (The Broken Vase) that the stylistic shifts melt into a larger sphere of expression very characteristic of Franck in general. She is not at this stage a very personal song interpreter, but these are not for the most part very interior songs. In any event, the end result is a release that will appeal to anyone who likes the Symphony in D minor, as well as any French song enthusiast.
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AllMusic Review by James Manheim