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The first time I heard Maggie Teyte was when I was just starting to enjoy French song. I was learning Duparc’s Chanson triste and a friend played me her recording of the song with Gerald Moore at the piano. I was absolutely entranced and it has remained my yardstick ever since. First of all the flowing tempo they adopt is aboslutely right (so many take it too slowly) and she responds perfectly to all Duparc’s markings – floating the tone beautifully on the mon of mon amour (it is marked doux by Duparc) an effect I have tried, not too successfully, to emulate myself. Her high A is clear, clean and true, but she takes the lower option on the words de tes bras, dipping down into that gloriously rich lower register she had. As you listen, you feel the song is addressed to you personally and you want to just lie back in the warm embrace of her comforting words. The French christened her L’Exquise Maggie Teyte, and the adjective suits her perfectly.

She was born in 1888 in Woverhampton, but went to Paris in 1903 to study with the famous tenor Jean De Reszke. She made her first public appearanc in 1906, singing Cherubino and Zerlina under Reynaldo Hahn, making her first professional appearance in Monte Carlo the following year. She then joined the company at the Opéra-Comique in Paris and was shortly after chosen to replace Mary Garden in the role of Mélisande, for which she was coached by Debussy himself. She is the only singer ever to have been accompanied in public by Debussy himself, and she is an invaluable link to so many musicians of the past. Despite her early success however, she didn’t really establish herself with the main opera houses, and went into semi-retirement after her second marriage (to Canadian millionaire Walter Sherwin Cottingham) in 1921.

In 1930 she tried to resuscitate her career, but ended up singing in variety and music hall (24 performances a week!) until, in 1930, she made some recordings of Debussy songs with Alfred Cortot, which were so successful that she then became known as the leading French song interpreter of her time. She also sang at Covent Garden in such roles as Butterfly, Hänsel and Eurydice in Gluck’s opera, as well as Manon in English (with Heddle Nash).

The present set concentrates on recordings of French song with orchestra and piano made between 1940 and 1948, making her 60 when she recorded Ravel’s Schéhérazade, not that you would ever suspect it. The voice is still absolutely firm with no trace of wobble or excessive vibrato, top notes pure and true (a thrilling top B flat in Asie), the inimitable lower register gloriously rich.

It starts with a rather hectic recording of Berlioz’s Le spectre de la rose. The fast tempo was presumably adopted so that they could fit the song onto a single 78, but it does remind us that it is in waltz time and she brings a peculiarly intimate touch to the closing lines,which are sung with an ineffable sadness. Absence is sweetly touching.

Occasionally her attention to the meaning of the words can get in the way of the music, and the tempo fluctuations in Fauré’s Après un rêve are just too much, the general speed much too slow, but the accelerando on Reviens, reviens just too much. On the other hand the tempo for his Clair de lune is absolutely spot on with a moment of pure magic as she infuses her tone with warmth at Au calme clair de lune and Gerald Moore switches to a more free flowing style in the accompaniment.

Over the two discs there is scarcely a performance that doesn’t warrant attention, but I single out for special consideration Duparc’s gorgeous Phidylé, which is lazily erotic as it should be (note her telling observation of the diminuendo on baiser – most singers miss it completely) and the aforementioned Chanson triste, the former with the LSO under Leslie Heward, the latter with Gerald Moore on the piano. Also on disc 1 is a superb performance of Chausson’s Chanson perpétuelle, whilst she breathes new life into Hahn’s popular Si me vers avaient des ailes.

In all she remains inimitable and individual, though, it seems these days, only known to connoisseurs. This set is no longer available, nor are the Debussy songs she recorded with Cortot. John Steane says in his wonderful book The Grand Tradition,

But basically the point about Maggie Teyte is the very simple one, that her singing is so good: that is, her voice is so clear, its production so even, its intonation so faultless, its movement in big upward leaps so clean and athletic, and its excellence was so well preserved for so long.

 

Not only is her actual singing so good, but she has something personal to say in all she does, and voice and style are instantly recognisable.

There are other examples of her art more readily available on other lablels but this old EMI set is a treasure and I urge Warner to reissue it along with the Debussy songs with Cortot. It should be in the collection of anyone who is interested in French song.

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