CD Review: Mélodies: Dussaut & Covatti
Adriana González Shines in Fascinating Exploration of a Composer-CoupleBy Freddy Dominguez
This disc is a labor of love—and it shows.
Basque conductor and pianist, Iñaki Encina Oyón, has meticulously unearthed and occasionally reconstructed the music of early twentieth century composer-couple Robert Dussaut and Hélène Covatti. He learned about them through his piano teacher and the composers’ daughter, Thérèse Dussaut. His reconstruction of their work, based largely on manuscripts (some fairly rough), is an homage to her.
His project depends and succeeds on the talents of the young Guatemalan soprano and recent Operalia winner, Adriana González, who possesses a warm, resonant voice enhanced by subtle phrasing that perfectly suits the songs presented. Her performance is marked by elegance and self-restraint with an ever-sustaining fire just beneath the surface.
The songs on this disc are, on the whole, settings of nineteenth century French poetry that deal with love, longing, and nostalgia, often with a touch of the exotic—evocations of a mystery-laden past and present, ancient Greece and Egypt, exotic roses, and nymphs.
In the hands of lesser composers, the material could devolve into platitudes. For the modern listener, the whole project might even seem maudlin. Thankfully, the music is, more often than not, articulated in a restrained musical idiom, allowing for a variety of emotional inflections without ever reaching any extremes.
Of the two composers showcased here, I found Covatti to be the more satisfying one. Her songs are rhythmically daring and they tend to have irresistible melodies—in part because she draws directly on folk traditions.
There is a jaunty earthiness to “Marine,” which speaks of the bustle and salt of life in Douamez, Brittany. There is sublime simplicity to the “Berceuse,” inflected by beguiling “orientalizing” figures and enhanced by Gonzalez’s impeccably sustained vocal line. There is the authoritative declamation of sweet eroticism descending into ultimate hesitation in “L’audacieuse serenade.” The album ends winningly with Covatti’s palpitating “J’ai dit oui” that speaks of awakening to love and its enduring, purifying effects.
Dussaut—a much more prolific composer than his wife—is marked by a certain stylistic squareness. At his least appealing, such as his setting of the Lord’s Prayer, the music feels ponderous. Occasionally, there is a missing chiaroscuro or balance between serenity and pulse. That said, the overall effect of his music is satisfying and, in its best moments, exquisitely communicative—as with the heart-rending and tremulous “Adieu,” which unfolds as if in a dazed realization of loss.
In his setting of Petrarch’s “Amor, che vedi,” he veers toward a satisfying Italianate idiom, light as a cloud on the one hand and full-bodied passion on the other. “Les deux ménétriers,” accompanied by four hands with Thibaut Epp joining Encina, takes things up a notch with a frantic piano and dervish-like delivery describing visions of damnation.
The songs on this disc are not transformational, but sustaining nonetheless. These are not rebel composers. These are music-makers deeply embedded in early twentieth century neo-classical modalities. Yet, their unearthing is a testament to the depth of that movement and the beauties that time still releases from concealment. They are familiar, yet new to us—a blessing of sorts, especially during times of quarantine and so much other woe. It is worth being reminded of beauty’s power and permanence.
Perhaps most importantly, especially given the times, this project is a testament to the musical gifts possessed by women—from the inspirational piano instructor to Covatti’s beautiful work, to the female poets, to Gonzalez’s unquestionably winning record debut.
The compact disc is going the way of the dinosaurs, but this record label (Audax) still pays attention to the physical object and its possibilities. It was a delight to hold this beautiful set, look at its stylish photography, read its useful notes, and have translations available in various languages. Old school, and in a good way.