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This affectionate, if incomplete, study by a Senior Research Fellow in French at the University of Bristol examines the modern chanson réaliste, the mainstay of French popular music for well over a century. Vocal personality is key to memorability for these performers, starting with the cabaret artiste Aristide Bruant (1851-1925), unforgettably depicted by Toulouse-Lautrec but also captured on early recordings circa 1900. Bruant’s roaring tone, from an age before concert amplification, recalls British music hall stars like Harry Champion.

What Bruant lacked in vocal subtlety, he made up in finesse as a songwriter, whereas his contemporary Yvette Guilbert (1865-1944), likewise immortalised by Toulouse-Lautrec, was so nuanced a singer that critic Desmond Shawe-Taylor rated her as one of the most varied and expressive voices ever to be recorded. By contrast, the always-loud street wailing of the perhaps overly celebrated Édith Piaf has overshadowed the achievements of such characterful singers as Berthe Sylva and Suzy Solidor, who go unmentioned here. Hawkins does pay homage to Fréhel, a tragic songstress whose life was ruined by a passionate affair with Maurice Chevalier, as unlikely as that may seem. In an effort to be timely, Chanson also discusses contemporary performers such as MC Solaar, a hip-hop and rap artist born Claude M’Barali, of Senegalese and Chadian origin. Erudite and literary like the best French singer-songwriters, Solaar is less distinctive vocally than his predecessors. Hawkins himself has performed a ‘One Man Chanson’ show in London, Sheffield, and the Alliance Française de Bristol et Bath.

Benjamin Ivry Read the full review on Agora Classica


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