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Recording of the Week, Voyage intime from Sandrine Piau and David Kadouch

If your inbox looks anything like mine, you’ll probably have noticed that this is the time of year when travel-companies start pointedly enquiring as to whether it’s ‘time to plan your next trip’ on a near-daily basis - but by far the most appealing ‘invitation au voyage’ I’ve received so far this month came in the form of today’s beguiling programme of songs of travel from Sandrine Piau and David Kadouch. Taking in music by Wolf, Schubert, Clara Schumann, Lili Boulanger, Duparc and Debussy, Voyage intime is guaranteed to stave off any winter Wanderlust for a fraction of the price of a real-life minibreak, with the French soprano at the top of her game and her new recital-partner proving the most illuminating of travel-companions.

Don’t expect an unbroken series of idyllic picture-postcards, though – whilst Piau and Kadouch are perhaps at their most hypnotic in the hymn-like meditations by Wolf and Schubert which crop up in the early part of the programme, the itinerary also includes lay-overs in some pretty dark psychological territory. In the conversation between the two artists in the booklet-note, Piau notes that ‘the theme of people being snatched away from the land of the living’ is one of the threads which binds the programme together, and in many respects the album is a sequel of sorts to both Chimère (her superb dream-themed 2019 recital with Susan Manoff which also combined mélodie and Lied) and last year’s gallery of Handel’s Enchantresses.

The opening song introduces us to the first of several sirens who crop up on this journey, in the form of the mermaid who lures an unsuspecting ‘Fischerknabe’ to his watery grave in one of the three songs which Liszt composed on Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell. Kadouch lulls us into a false sense of security with some gorgeously soft-focus playing here, while Piau’s trademark angelic timbre soon takes on a chilling edge as the water-nymph reveals her true colours.

That combination of sweetness and steel proves equally unsettling in Clara Schumann’s vivid setting of Heine’s Lorelei (another supernatural tale of love on the rocks) and especially in a unusually lyrical take on Schubert’s Erlkönig, where the eponymous villain can rarely have sounded so plausible and genuinely seductive as he does here: Piau’s vernal soprano also lends itself perfectly to the voice of the terrified child, whilst the father comes across as more vulnerable and out of his depth than ever. This is the first of three Schubert settings which round off the first, German-language half of the programme, all of which reveal a new firmness and colour in the lower-middle and bottom registers of the voice – ‘Der Tod und das Mädchen’ sees her taking the optional low D (which even mezzos and baritones occasionally duck) entirely in her stride.

You might want to take a breather after Mignon’s nostalgic description of ‘the land where lemon-trees blossom’ before embarking on the second leg of the journey, which ventures into distinctly more exotic terrain and kicks off with a superbly languorous account of Duparc’s 'L'invitation au voyage’ – Piau delivers Baudelaire’s evocative text with her usual clarity and nuance here and in ‘La vie antérieure’ which follows, with an almost mezzo-ish glow creeping into the middle voice at times, and Kadouch matches her every shift in colour and texture without ever overwhelming the voice at those heady climaxes.

It’s also a treat to hear two excerpts from Lili Boulanger’s enthralling song-cycle Clairières dans le ciel, composed towards the end of her short life in 1913 and shot through with echoes of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde - if the excerpts here leave you hungry for more, then do keep an eye out for the complete songs of Lili and her sister Nadia which is due out on Harmonia Mundi later this month…

The physical album is something of a round-trip, coming back full-circle to Liszt and the theme of enchantment with a wonderfully skittish performance of ‘Comment, disaient-ils’ – but digital listeners have the option of ending their journey on a rather more melancholy note with a return to Schubert and Mignon in the form of ‘Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt’. Whichever option you choose, this intimate voyage is a journey to savour.

Sandrine Piau (soprano) David Kadouch (piano)

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC