Celine Ricci is a young Italian soprano of mixed Italian and French parentage. Studying in Paris and at the Guildhall in London she went on to participate in William Christie’s Les Jardin des Voix.
On the present disc she moves away from early music to the Paris of the 1920s. This imaginative recital puts together song-cycles by composers influenced by Satie and Cocteau, the subjects revolving around the circus and the dynamic street-life of Paris. Three of the cycles have text to poems by Cocteau himself and the remainder circulate the same orbit. The recital is prevented from being the usual ‘a propos des Six’ by the fact that the songs include lesser known ones by Milhaud plus material by Henri Sauget, a composer not in les Six but still influenced by Cocteau - his inaugural Parisian concert at the Sorbonne was organised with the assistance of Satie and Cocteau.
The opening cycle, Cirque, is a sequence of settings by Henri Sauget of poems by Adrien Copperie. Copperie was a boyhood friend of Sauget - both were born in Bordeaux; in these five songs we get brief descriptions of circus performers, set by Sauget in a melodic, epigrammatic manner. The writing owes something to Satie and though Sauget’s voice is akin to that of Poulenc and Milhaud, his writing lacks the sharpness and edge often to be found in their music of this period.
Milhaud’s own Trois Poèmes de Jean Cocteau from this period are three tiny miniatures, each describing incidents in the city in allusive style. Milhaud responds with songs whose melodic interest is often in the piano. Here we have to address issues of Ricci’s performance and the way that the recording has caught her voice.
Most of the songs are word-based, and Ricci’s performance is admirably focussed on the text with very clear declamation. Unfortunately her voice in the upper regions seems to spread when under pressure and this is caught alarmingly by the recording. You feel she ought to have been given more air around the voice. Also, she has a habit of approaching notes from below, which can be irritating.
In the final Milhaud song in Trois Poèmes de Jean Cocteau another problem becomes apparent: Ricci seems to be unable or unwilling to sustain the long lines which the song needs and the vocal contour is unnecessarily choppy. Next comes a lovely performance of Satie’s Rag-Time Parade from pianist Daniel Locker, sadly the only Satie on the disc.
Poulenc’s Cocardes are a further three songs to allusive Cocteau poems, again finding inspiration in the streets of Paris. The first opens, quite daringly, in epigrammatic manner with the voice unsupported by the piano. Just as the words found inspiration in the street, so Poulenc uses fragments of popular style melody in the songs. This manner occurs in the cycles by Milhaud and Auric, but it is Poulenc who is the master. He displays a quickness, a quicksilver ability to change emotion on a pin and Ricci does not quite manage to reflect this. Her performances are worthy, perhaps creditable but not prime Poulenc. Another charming piano solo follows, Le Tango des Fratellini which bears a remarkable resemblance to Le Boeuf sur le Toit.
George Auric’s Huit poèmes de Jean Cocteau is the final group on the disc to use Cocteau’s words. It opens aptly with a homage to Eric Satie and follows with seven longer, complex poems, though Paris is never far away. Cocteau brings in modern inventions such as the bi-plane. Auric tends to set Cocteau’s words in a rather declamatory, conversational fashion with significant lyrical and melodic interest in the piano. It is almost as if Auric, Poulenc and Milhaud had decided to set Cocteau’s poems in a similar manner. In fact there are links. In 1920 Cocteau organised a ‘spectacle concert’ at Le Comédie Des Champs Elysées with music written by Auric, Poulenc and Milhaud. Poulenc’s Cocardes was performed at this event as was Milhaud’s Le Boeuf sur le Toit which seems to have been renamed for its piano version, Le Tango des Fratellini - the Fratellini were circus performers whom Cocteau had engaged to perform in the show. Cocteau seems to have been in the air and the friends responded to him in remarkably similar ways.
There are lyric moments in Huit poèmes de Jean Cocteau, but Ricci does not make enough of them. Rather unfairly, perhaps, I kept coming back to the performances of Felicity Lott in the music of Les Six and wishing that Ricci had something of Lott’s ability to mine the miniature lyric beauty of these songs, and respond to their quickness.
Another piano solo Caramel Mou, again by Milhaud; this was written for another avant-garde show, this time put on by Pascal Bertin. A negro performer, Graton, danced a shimmy tp Milhaud's piece, which originally had words by Cocteau.
This is followed by his Six Chansons de Théâtre. These date from 1954 but in spirit they almost belong to the 1920s. The songs all come from plays. George Pitoeff’s Tue ne m’échapperas jamais, Jules Supervielle’s La Première Famille and Henri-René Lenormand’s La Folle du Ciel. Again the songs are tiny and popular music, especially the Waltz, is not far away; Milhaud tends to use it in tantalising hints and fragments.
Henri Sauget’s La Voyante dates from the 1930s and sets texts attributed to Nostradamus all dealing with card-reading, astrology and palmistry. Sauget opens the second song, Astrologie with what seems to be a quotation from ‘Twinkle, Twinkle little star’! The final song, Chiromancie (Palmistry) is by far the longest and most dramatic. Sauget’s style is more lyric-melodic than that of Poulenc, Milhaud and Auric but you certainly get the impression that he was aping their manner, albeit in a way which was less sharp, less edgy. Again, I kept finding that though Ricci was responsive to the words, she failed to give the melodies a sufficient sense of line.
The final song on the disc is one that the long-lived Sauget wrote in 1954. It will be familiar to many listeners as Sauget wrote it for Edith Piaf and I’m afraid that Ricci’s performance does not really eclipse that of Piaf.
In all the songs Ricci is admirably partnered by Lockert who contributes the charming piano solos.
The CD booklet is admirably informative, with texts in English and French, brief biographies of the composers and the poets, an interview with the performers and an article on French mélodie, plus photographs of Celine Ricci in performance.
This is, in many ways, an admirable programme, intelligently put together and including some lesser-known works rather than treading the familiar route around the music of Les Six. But Ricci’s performance is simply unsatisfactory. Though the recording has caught her voice badly, her own performances are just too mannered and lacking in the elegant perfection which these songs demand. One of my tests of whether to recommend a record is whether the CD is one that I would gladly play again; I’m afraid that this one failed, despite the attractive programme.
See also review
by Steve Arloff