Gérard Souzay Sings Baroque & Classical Arias & Songs

LABELS: Testament
PERFORMER: with Jacqueline Bonneau (piano); Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire/Robert Cornman


Haven’t quite cracked French song yet? Here are the voices that did it for me and, I guarantee, will do it for you. No, stronger than that: this is a treasure trove and, if you’re at all susceptible to the ancient art of marrying poetry to music, it will charm, disarm, delight, ravish, transport and move you deeply. Remarkably, only one of these singers was French-born.

Now in his eighties, GÉRARD SOUZAY has made more song records than almost anyone else. Until recently, you could only buy his later ones, where his voice shows the effects of all that work. Testament has quarried Decca’s vaults for long-buried 78s and LPs from 1950-56, Souzay’s prime.

His baritone blooms, the centred weight and colour making it ideally versatile. The range and rightness of Souzay’s responses to the ambitious repertoire on Testament’s five CDs must owe something to his lessons with Pierre Bernac and Claire Croiza; and also to that respect that the French still accord to Classical ideals of decorum, proportion and artfulness.

Highlights? Almost impossible but, if I was the Virgin, listening to Debussy’s setting of medieval robber-poet Jacques Villon, I’d melt at the tender solicitousness of Souzay’s prayer for his unlettered mum; if I was a turkey, after Souzay’s affectionately vivid sketch, I’d almost forgive the guinea-fowl of Ravel’s Histoires naturelles her cussedness.

With some of the best Chausson, Duparc and Fauré you’re likely to hear, these two recitals are an irresistible ‘Invitation au voyage’ to the heart of the French lyrical imagination. Schumann and Wolf inspire from Souzay gentle, vulnerable readings no less Romantic (with a big R) than Fischer-Dieskau’s powerful Expressionism.

Souzay’s Schubert is as supple and light as Peter Schreier’s (not quite, obviously, as natively German), but smoother and darker. The older, rarer German repertoire – superb songs by CPE Bach, among others – makes me regret that Souzay was never co-opted into a Bach project.


But there’s compensation: histrionic Lully and Gluck, witty and touching arie antiche by Scarlatti, Caccini, etc, with fine piano parts by Arne Dørumsgaard (my one quibble with Alan Blyth’s perceptive booklet essays: where are the ‘tedious moments’?).