Karen Cargill - Fleur de mon âme - Planet Hugill

Scottish mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill took up the post of Head of Vocal Performance at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland this month, but certainly I hope this new position does not prevent her from producing further recital discs as her latest one from Linn Records is terrific. Fleur de mon âme features Karen Cargill and pianist Simon Lepper in a programme of French song, with music by Reynaldo Hahn, Claude Debussy, Ernest Chausson and Henri Duparc, plus an item by the Belgian composer Joseph Jongen and for this and a work by Chausson they are joined by RSNO soloists.

When Reynaldo Hahn gave a series of lectures on singing in 1913, he advocated keeping excessive emotion in check in favour of graduated sensations. So the trick for singers is to allow us to luxuriate in the lovely melodies whilst not going too far. Cargill and Lepper begin their recital with a group of five Hahn songs, À ChlorisLe rossignol des lilasL’énamouréeInfidélité and Les fontaines, the first perhaps the best known but all are profoundly gorgeous. For À Chloris Cargill and Lepper clearly follow the composer's advice, and what we notice is the poise and the control, the way the overall tone is considered and thoughtful. Here, and throughout the disc, Cargill's way with the French language is superb and when I was listening I kept coming back to the way she always shapes the music to the text, with her and Lepper making each song flow naturally. Le rossignol des lilas is nicely flowing and Les fontaines is impulsive, but in both there is still time to shape the melody and bring out details.

They follow this with Debussy's Chansons de Bilitis, settings of extracts from a longer poem by Pierre Louys, supposedly lost translations of Ancient Greek. The songs, dating from 1897, mark an important point in Debussy's development as a song composer and he approaches the text with great fluidity, presaging Pelleas et Melisande of 1902. Cargill and Lepper create moods which are intimate and thoughtful, often quite cool, but with an evocative flexibility in the text. Despite the fact that Cargill is a mezzo-soprano, she really does evoke Melisande particularly in the second song. But all is not atmosphere, the text works hard and there are moments of real passion too so that the third song has a slow build towards great intensity and power.

Joseph Jongen was director of the Conservatoire royal de Bruxelles for much of the 1920s and 1930s. His Calmes, aux quais déserts(from 1917) for voice, piano and string quartet is a little gem setting the symbolist poet Albert Samain. This is a highly atmospheric piece, a rather haunting vocal line over flowing quartet textures, with moments of real languor and eroticism reflecting the emotions behind the text rather than being purely descriptive.

Five songs by Chausson follow, beginning with Chanson perpétuelle in a version for voice, piano and strings, his last completed work from 1897/98 just before his early death. Perhaps because of the strings the atmosphere is reminiscent of Jongen's song (though giving the dating we should say the reverse) and with his combination of forces, Chausson brings out some interesting textures with the piano getting short soloistic interludes. The remaining Chausson songs, for voice and piano, Sérénade italienneLe charmeLe colibri,  and Les papillons are by turns impulsive, urgent, poised and thoughtful, but always engaged and engaging with a lovely shapely sense of line.

Finally we turn to Duparc, where tensions are again smouldering away and there can be a tendency for singers to simply over do the luxuriance of the music. Cargill and Lepper make L’invitation au voyage warmly seductive, but with a sense of maturity to the passion and at the end their final 'Luxe, calme et volupte' is quietly interior and pure magic. Chanson triste is warmly expressive, whilst Extase, though warm, is quiet and subtle and we end with Phidylé, full of quiet magic and subtlety, yet sexy too.

Karen Cargill and Simon Lepper will be opening The Cumnock Tryst on Thursday 30 September 2021 with a programme of songs by Clara Schumann, Robert Schumann and Amy Beach. Details from the festival website with both in-person and live-streamed performances.

Planet Hugill
28 September 2021