The first volume of Hyperion's complete Fauré songs is called "Au bord de l'eau" (by the water's edge) -- a reference to the French master's fondness for aquatic, nautical, and natural subjects in poetry, as well as to the title of one of his most famous songs. Having decided against a purely chronological survey of Fauré's songs, an approach that would have progressed from the lyrical outpourings of the composer's youth to the much thornier works of his later years, pianist Graham Johnson and Hyperion have instead divided the songs into thematic groups -- in the case of this first volume, songs that make poetic or musical reference to nature, water, sailing, and so on. Organizing the songs in this way sheds light on themes that ran throughout the composer's creative life, and happily avoids the academic cheerlessness that often ruins complete editions.
From a musical standpoint this is a good, but not great, collection. All of the singers, from veterans like Felicity Lott to relative newcomers like Christopher Maltman, deliver polished and secure performances, and Graham Johnson accompanies them all with sensitivity, if not always great involvement. But the all-English cast's French is often too sharply articulated to pass for authentic, and there is a generalized lack of atmosphere, of je ne sais quoi. That said, there are certainly some high points. Geraldine McGreevy and Stella Doufexis' "Tarantelle" brings a welcome wit out of Johnson at the keyboard, and shows a playful, almost Offenbach-like, side of Fauré that is often overlooked. And Stephen Varcoe's understated Mirages takes top honors for French style with its even-keeled lyricism and soft, almost caressing approach to phrasing and diction. Johnson's liner notes are some of the most accessible and informative that you'll find in any song collection.