Edith Piaf is almost universally regarded as France's greatest popular singer. Still revered as an icon decades after her death, "the Sparrow" served as a touchstone for virtually every chansonnier, male or female, who followed her. Her greatest strength wasn't so much her technique, or the purity of her voice, but the raw, passionate power of her singing. (Given her extraordinarily petite size, audiences marveled all the more at the force of her vocals.) Her style epitomized that of the classic French chanson: highly emotional, even melodramatic, with a wide, rapid vibrato that wrung every last drop of sentiment from a lyric…
The three-disc, 50-track collection 50 Plus Belles Chansons is an excellent compilation of material from throughout Alain Bashung's three decade career. It contains all the hits and some well-chosen live and album cuts. It is both an excellent introduction to the artist and a seamless listening treat for fans.
L'arbre de mai (The Tree of May) is a terrifically presented album of early Renaissance music, one that tries to place the listener inside the musical culture of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries and does a highly imaginative – sometimes overactively imaginative – job of it. The album divides its 19 works into four thematic groups: Love and Youth, the Tree of May, War and the King, and the Evening of Life. Within each group, works by high-Netherlandish composers like Dufay and Compère are mixed with anonymous works of a more popular quality, and vocal works alternate with instrumental dances.
England's Orlando Consort, a quartet of male singers augmented as needed by other performers, offers performances of Renaissance vocal music that lie midway between the traditional and the highly individualized modern. Sometimes they veer toward one of those two extremes, but often, as on the present disc, they find a happy medium. Their sound, especially in sacred music, owes much to the English cathedral tradition, but there's a well-honed edge to their one-voice-to-a-part interpretations that brings out the crowds who've recently been drawn to early music. This disc is intended as an introduction to a composer who doesn't always offer easy listening to the modern ear. Netherlander Antoine Busnois, active at the end of the fifteenth century and considered the greatest figure between Dufay and Josquin, wrote music that broke free from elaborate medieval numerology but came in advance of Josquin's perfect marriage of music and text.