This 2004 effort, devoted to the songs of Fauré, Debussy, and Poulenc, was Ian Bostridge's first full album of French Song. He brings the same eager devotion to poetry and musical intelligence to this repertory that have informed his recordings of German and English song in the past, but the results are mixed.
Debussy's second book of Fêtes galantes, which opens the program doesn't fare well. The three poems deal with some of the most ephemeral sentiments ever set to music: the youthful discovery of sexual desire, as stimulated by exposed necks and whispered words; the insinuating eroticism of a Faun; a brief glimpse of ghosts whose worldly relationship is still unresolved. These are songs that blow away at even a hint of breeze, and Bostridge's voice is all too real for them -- too opaque, too muscled to manage the delicate transparency required.
Capturing Francis Poulenc's uniquely attractive wit is the key to his songs -- from the understated poignancy of the war-time "C" and tongue-twisting gallop of "Fête galantes" to the surrealist fancies of Telle jour, telle nuit. Bostridge's willingness to take interpretive risks and engage in word-to-word combat with these often strange and comical poems reaps big rewards, and makes this central group the highlight of the album, and a good reason to hear it.
The two groups of Fauré are hit and miss, at their best in more up-tempo or dramatic moments, and least effective in slower or more contemplative sections where the integrity of the melodic line and sheer vocal beauty become the primary requirements. Bostridge seems uncomfortable using his voice as a purely musical instrument, rather than a vehicle for text. That engagement pays off well when it suits the style of the music, but turns some of these flowing melodies into choppy, under-energized collections of disconnected syllables.
As always, Bostridge has chosen excellent partners for this recording. Julius Drake plays with clarity, precision, and a light touch throughout, and the Belcea Quartet (with bassist Leon Bosch) add a welcome warmth and expansiveness to Fauré's La bonne chanson, which is usually performed with just piano. However, both piano and strings are mixed so far into the background throughout the album, and Bostridge so far into the foreground, that it is hard to experience the full effect of the instrumental contributions, or any sense of unity.