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New French Song - new settings of French words by British composers (2003-2004)
Tarik O'REGAN (b. 1972) Sainte (Mallarmè) [3.39]
Sadie HARRISON (b. 1965) ..issu stellaire.. (Mallarmé) [6.12]
Will TODD (b. 1970) Le Pont Mirabeau (Apollinaire) [5.09]
Edwared COWIE (b. 1943) Les Hiboux (Baudelaire) [4.12]
Bob CHILCOTT (b. 1955) L'enfant dort (Hugo) [1.42]
John CASKEN (b. 1949) Colloque Sentimental (Verlaine) [6.12]
Laurence CRANE (b. 1961) Tour de France Statistics 1903 – 2003 (Crane) [4.47]
Adam GORB (b. 1958) La Cloche Fêlée (Baudelaire) [6.27]
Gabriel JACKSON (b. 1962) A la Mémoire de Claude Debussy (Cocteau) [3.24]
Michael FINNISSY (b. 1946) Salomé (Laforgue) [3.09]
Andrew KEELING (b. 1955) Artémis (de Nerval) [4.31]
Hugh WOOD (b. 1932) Alicante (Prévert) [1.47]
Diana BURRELL (b. 1948) Longtemps ce fut l'été (Bonnefoy) [2.15]
Helen ROE (b. 1955) Pourquoi? (Verlaine) [5.48]
Nicola LEFANU (b. 1947) Billet à Whistler (Mallarmè) [6.38]
Edward MCGUIRE (b. 1948) Rêves de la Bonne Heure (McGuire) [4.52]
Judith BINGHAM (b. 1952) La Jeune Morte (Heredia) [2.31]
Roger REDGATE (b. 1958) Mirlitonnades (Beckett) [1.57]
Howard SKEMPTON (b. 1947) Le Pont Mirabeau (Apollinaire) [1.34]
Graham FITKIN (b. 1963) Les Aliments Blancs (Satie) [1.44]
Alison Smart (soprano)
Katharine Durran (piano)
Recorded at the Turner Sims Concert Hall, 1-3 April 2005. DDD.
MSV CD 92100 [79.36]


Any release that broadens the range of art song before the public immediately arouses my interest. The idea of getting twenty British composers to set French texts might initially raise fears about the love-hate relationship that supposedly exists between the two nations. Nothing could be further from the truth, and this disc is much the stronger for it.

The listening experience is interesting too; indeed one could think of this as the musical equivalent of twenty miniature images displayed in a row. With each track you’re moved along the line to something new. Each is by its very nature a concentrated experience as there’s no growing accustomed to a continuity of style or technique. What is each composer’s sensitivity and approach to text like and which takes primacy in performance, text or music?

Then there’s the texts ... and the range of poets covered. Here in this case are some of the true greats. In one case there’s the opportunity to compare two settings of the same text.

The excellent booklet includes full texts with translations accompanied by composer and poet mini profiles. We are told how the project was borne out of the experience of these artists performing Poulenc and Fauré in 1999. Whilst only a couple of the works presented here have anything approaching the subtlety of response that those great Frenchmen exhibit in their chansons, they nonetheless offer adventure and amusement that is amply rewarding. Indeed it is often the more off-beat texts that have the staying power: Beckett, Crane and Satie - who else could make a list of white foods bring a smile to your face?

There is a tendency here to explore vocal extremes, be it in terms of range (Redgate) or intensity of attack (Gorb). However, this is balanced by the inner calm and reflectiveness that others achieve. Tarik O’Regan’s Mallarmé setting hasn’t failed yet to draw me in and make me stop everything to listen, so too McGuire and Jackson. Others instil different reactions. Harrison appears extract-like. Redgate takes the song to the point of vocal abstraction. Bingham has a slight indifference to the text perhaps. Then there are the gentle nods from one composer to another artist: Jackson to Debussy and LeFanu to Whistler.

Listening to the whole disc at one sitting might be a touch wearing, and quickly I adopted the pattern of listening to smaller groups. As with most intricately created miniatures inevitably there were facets that revealed themselves only on repeated visits. Gradually preferred individual songs and groups emerged. Groups of poets, groups of tempi – alike and contrasting – allowed for the creation of mini-recitals drawn from the overall pool. For example, I found the following particularly effective: the contrast between Todd and Cowie or the suitably questioning Roe against Skempton’s lilting rhythms and natural linguistic feeling.

Whilst Alison Smart is set a tall order by the composers, to my ears she makes a strong case for these songs. Perhaps here and there one regrets that a feel for the inner music of the French language is sacrificed a little so that a vocal high wire act can be pulled off. But then that maybe shows a composer’s lack of innate linguistic affinity too. Katharine Durran offers solid support throughout, her instrument being recorded closely, but allowing for a nice atmosphere to develop around it – though it too can be insistent when required by the likes of Bingham or Fitkin.

Artistically enterprising and uncompromising, with excellent production values too, this Metier release is well worth exploring.

Evan Dickerson

 



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