Giusto mezzo

A profile of Susan Graham.
Boston Globe, January 21, 2007.

Somthing that didn’t make it into the article that’s worth mentioning is a piece I wasn’t familiar with, Ernest Chausson’s Poeme de l’amour et de la mer for mezzo-soprano and orchestra. (There’s a couple of free mp3s of questionable legality on the Web; I won’t link to them, but they’re not hard to find. Graham has recorded the piece as well.) Graham sang it on a European tour last year with conductor Phillipe Jordan, who learned the piece from his father, Armin Jordan, who used to perform the work with Felicity Lott. It’s a gorgeous slice of French Romanticism, kind of a Gallic counterpart to Elgar’s Sea Pictures.

Chausson is often dismissed mainly because he wasn’t Debussy, much the same way that 19th-century French academic painting is unfavorably compared with Impressionism. Chausson has something in common with those older painters—they take a dramatic situation or mood, then put a certain distance between the audience and the drama via careful composition and a polished surface. In Chausson, the result is a kind of reticent grandeur that I’ve always found intriguing.

Update (1/22): My taste is validated: it turns out that the Poèmes already have a formidable fan club led by Opera Chic.


  1. There’s some wonderful Chausson that does away with the distance between drama and audience. I’m thinking especially of the Concerto (his title for what is in effect a piano sextet), a marvelous example of passionate late 19th-century chamber music.

  2. The Concerto is a lovely piece; I got to know it through a recording by Joshua Bell. I don’t remember who wrote the booklet notes, but he spends most of the time talking about what an overwrought piece of trash the Chausson is. Think he could have gotten away with that in the days when you could still read the back of the record in the store? Yeesh. Ignore the naysayers; Jeffrey is right.

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