Many devotees of this song cycle favour the recording by Régine Crespin, whereas I find her voice tonally impure and her interpretation rather bland. There, however, a plethora of recommendable versions by Baker, Norman, Von Stade, Hunt Lieberson, Cargill, Graham, Kasarova, Te Kanawa, Steber et al - but these are of course all female interpreters able to encompass, sometimes by transposition, the tessitura of these marvellous songs. Here is something different.
I am not necessarily always a fan of the countertenor in all repertoires but I have loved the sound of Daniels' voice since first I heard it in his Handel recital years ago. The mellow, fluty timbre, the effortless top notes,and the smoothness of the production throughout its range without a hint of squawk or bluster: these are such seductive qualities allied with a supremely sensitive interpretative intelligence. He is my go-to singer if I want to convince anyone of the beauties of this voice category and he eschews the archness or preciousness which some countertenors affect and which make you think of a male singer in drag - fatal, given those comic associations, in music of such emotional profundity. His vocal identity is closest to genuine contraltos like Nathalie Stutzmann: dark and ductile, with perhaps a hint too much vibrato for some tastes but which is not inappropriate for music which is both upper and lower case "romantic”.
Steadiness of line is vital in songs such as "Le spectre de la rose" and "Absence" and Daniels provides it. This, combined with the faintly plaintive quality imparted by conductor John Nelson's eschewing excessive vibrato in the strings, creates the suitably rapt atmosphere the song demands. The climax of "J'arrive du paradis" makes it impact as it should and the shimmering strings of the Ensemble Orchestral de Paris sound authentically French (hardly surprisingly), with some astringency in their tone, just as the slightly grainy woodwind avoid sounding too lush.
Daniels' French is excellent and Nelson's phrasing and tempi wholly convincing; in many ways this performance is closest in character to Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's with McGegan, especially as both discreetly adopt some HAP practice, but this studio sound here is better than her live version. You may gauge the concentration and sincerity of this recording by watching it on YouTube.
The other items on this disc are more than just fillers or bonuses, insofar as they consist of a substantial amount of extra singing in the four songs by Ravel and the five by Fauré, plus over twenty minutes instrumental playing in the three orchestral pieces; after all, Berlioz's song cycle takes only about half an hour to perform, even though it leaves the impression of something grander and greater with its sweeping, stirring melodic lines in the four central songs sandwiched between the more insouciant outer numbers. The progression from Berlioz to Ravel to Fauré with orchestral interludes makes a lovely French programme, showcasing three very idioms yet with each retaining a special Gallic flavour.
The reliance upon period practice is more noticeable in those instrumental items and it's a subjective question of taste whether you like it played so. They have been selected to put three soloists in the spotlight and the clarinettist Richard Vieille is especially plangent. I especially enjoyed hearing the sensuous “Pavane” here in such luscious sound.
(One little peculiarity; the translation in the last Greek song of “la vieille danse” - “the old woman dances” - as “the crockery dances” presents an odd little riddle – unless the translator misunderstood the word to mean “old crock” as a disrespectful term for an old person.)