This is an absolutely wonderful program. Of course Les Nuits d’été and Shéhérazade are old discmates, most famously on an outstanding disc featuring the late, great Régine Crespin. A dramatic soprano, Crespin’s voice was quite a bit larger than the comparative lightness and purity of Gens, but these songs aren’t Wagner, and each soloist does the music full justice in her own way. Especially in Les Nuits d’été, which isn’t really a song cycle, Gens and conductor John Axelrod team up to produce a performance that actually makes you forget that the work consists of two quick numbers enclosing four long, droopy ones. “Absence” and “Au Cimetière” seldom have sounded more flowing and purposeful.
Gens’ deft handling of the poetry also pays major dividends in the long first song of Shéhérazade, a travelogue that all too easily degenerates into a sort of impressionistic, French version of “I’ve Got A Little List”. Not here, with Gens conveying an unexaggerated feeling of wonderment, ably seconded by Axelrod’s colorful accompaniments. The brief concluding songs, “La flûte enchanté” and “L’indifférent”, are sexy but not smarmy, beautifully capturing Ravel’s delicately etched vocal lines. I can’t help but think, despite wonderful performances by non-French singers (Ely Ameling especially), how much it helps to have a native speaker take the part.
However, what makes this disc particularly desirable is the presence of Herminie, an early cantata by Berlioz that’s almost always passed over in favor of the more popular La mort de Cléopâtre. Herminie is not only a very enjoyable work in its own right, but it begins with a tune that’s nothing less than the “idée fixe” that later found a home in the Symphonie fantastique. The tune returns in the middle section of the aria “Arrête! Arrête! Cher Tancrède”, where it becomes an accompaniment to the vocal line (sound sample). As with everything on this program, the work is compellingly sung by Gens and conducted with conviction. The engineering is also excellent, with Gens’ voice captured with truly striking naturalism. Highest recommendation. (David Hurwitz)