Christian Vasseur: Alam
Humming Conch

Christian Vasseur: Poèmes saturniens
Humming Conch

A lute recording obviously doesn't date in the way one does that's tied to developing digital technologies. Even so, one can still detect clear differences between these excellent Christian Vasseur albums newly issued by Humming Conch, with the 1993 Alam recording preceding Poèmes saturniens by a decade. Firstly, it should be noted that only the former is lute-based; Vasseur recorded the latter using a number of different guitars—flamenco, steel-string, etc. Nevertheless, there's a noticeable difference in style between the two, with the first slightly more “in the tradition” and the second broader in the techniques used and more “modern” in spirit.

The lute is so inextricably bound up with traditions associated with John Dowland and Elizabethan lute music, it's almost impossible not to hear Alam in light of such references. Even so, Vasseur's material sounds fresh and unconstrained by tradition. One of the most appealing things about the album is the patience he demonstrates in his playing; no piece feels hurried, and the more ponderous settings (e.g., “A grey ground dedicated to an anonymous English composer,” “Waiting for the bells”) are given as much time to unfold as they require; noteworthy as well is the control shown in modulating between extreme tempo changes (e.g., “Peter Gabriel's dream”). The sound is crystal-clear and uncluttered, with 14-string-archlute the sole instrument (though near-subliminal vocal accompaniment appears during “No try to tie the butterfly (for Nathalie)”) and its deep and dark qualities on full display. Having formally studied the lute for many years with a number of renowned teachers in Paris and Toulouse , Vasseur is clearly a virtuoso, but technique is used in the service of the work. The chime of his rapid picking at times makes the lute resemble a banjo in “Peter Gabriel's dream,” while his supplicating over a pedal point drone in the title piece is memorable too.

Poèmes saturniens is as beautifully recorded as Alam and as expressive—melancholy, yes, but more aggressive and turbulent by comparison. On the 2003 recording, Vasseur turns his attention to guitar, specifically flamenco, nylon-string, and parlor-steel string, plus Indian zither. The beautiful Spanish-styled setting, “Fragments,” showcases the full range of his talents in a single, nine-minute setting. Resonant picking, deftly-handled tempo shifts, and a dramatic vocal-enhanced theme combine to give the opening piece a powerful wistfulness. Much like a peaceful memory reflection returning to consciousness before just as quickly being swept aside, “Il y a…” appears twice as an interlude before closing the album in its complete form. As mentioned, the range of techniques is broader in the later recording. In “E.A.P.,” his whispered voice emerges like an incantatory spirit while scraped strings briefly transform the piece into a dazzling mini-vortex. He strikes the instrument's body while rapidly picking through “Echappée belle,” scratches and scrapes the strings to create a drunken, woozy effect in “Epanchement du songe,” and accompanies frenetic guitar flurries with animal-like grunts during the fast sections in “Le rire de Démocrite.” 

August 2009