Philippe Jaroussky on Verlaine
French song has always been a bit of a passion of mine - like many people I first got to know this repertoire through recordings by the voluptuous-voiced Régine Crespin and Jessye Norman, and further down the line by singers like Véronique Gens and Susan Graham - but I remember having a real epiphany around five years ago when I came across a new disc called Opium, the first time I'd ever heard a countertenor (and one noted for the purity and sweetness of his tone at that) tackling the opulent, heady music of composers like Massenet, Saint-Saëns and Reynaldo Hahn.
Philippe Jaroussky's way with texts and the fresh sensuality of his timbre really won me over, and so I was delighted when a follow-up project - focusing on settings of Paul Verlaine - was announced in late 2014. The two discs of Green (out now on Erato) have been delightful companions throughout my spring commutes into work, and so it was an especial pleasure to talk to Philippe about the genesis of the project, and his enthusiasm for Verlaine's poetry…
When did you first encounter Verlaine's poetry? Might there be similar projects in the offing exploring the other Symbolists?
It was at school when I was about 12. I remember that the poem was Prison, and then I was immediately hooked on all things Verlaine. I did my first concert dedicated to Verlaine already at 21 with my piano teacher. I don't think there will be another project like this. This one has been a lot of work and research, maybe one of my most personal and ambitious projects so far - together with the Carestini Album we did a few years ago.
Verlaine's surely one of the most frequently-set poets of all time - what do you think makes his verse so appealing to composers, and how much variety is there in the way that different composers here respond to a poem like, say Chanson d'automne or Mandoline?
Composers were attracted by the variety of rhythm and the versatility of his poems. After setting some of his poems (Clair de lune, Mandolin, L'heure exquise...) to music, they became classics that everyone wanted to set, in a way to prove what they were capable of! I could do five CDs worth of this music! I really wanted to focus on the ten most iconic poems and present between two and four different musical versions of the same one. It shows the personality of each composer, and how you can interpret a poem in a completely different way! If you take for example the poem Prison, Fauré and Séverac are very dark and dramatic from the beginning, whereas Hahn is more evocative of the nostalgia of loss of happiness.
Did you feel that there's still a certain amount of controversy regarding countertenors taking on this repertoire, or certain preconceptions about how melodies and chansons 'should' sound in terms of vocal colour?
Absolutely! I don't know why some people still think that a countertenor should sing only baroque repertoire originally sung by castrati (who of course had a very different vocal colour). I think that each countertenor has to choose the repertoire he is most comfortable with. For me this is French chanson where, curiously, I feel vocally less limited compared with very virtuosic castrato arias.
Roughly half of the songs here are presented in new arrangements for strings and even additional vocals in one or two cases: how did you decide on which songs to 'orchestrate', and who did the arrangements?
It was clear from the beginning that we wanted to make arrangements for the songs by Ferré, Trénet and Brassens. Jérôme Ducros [the pianist on Green], who is also a gifted composer, was apprehensive about arranging Debussy’s Fêtes Galantes I, but like Caplet and and several other composers who arranged Debussy’s music, I was hearing strings. I think it was a good opportunity to present a new arrangement of this gem.
Finally, can you settle on any particular favourite settings from this collection?
For me, Colloque Sentimental by Ferré (the first track of the album) really shows the link between chanson and the great French classical composers (Fauré, Debussy etc.). I remember that I was very touched the first time I listened to it. At first I didn’t plan to mix different styles of music, but it became increasingly clear that it was very important to show how Verlaine continues even now to be an inspiration to all artists.