On 13 January 1993 Felicity Lott sang this Poulenc programme
at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris on the occasion
of the 30th anniversary of the deaths of Jean Cocteau
and Francis Poulenc. A little more than a year later she recorded
the same programme in London and it is a worthy tribute to Poulenc.
First and foremost it spans his entire career as a writer of
mélodies, from Le Bestiaire, composed when he was still
a teenager, to the Cocteau setting La Dame de Monte-Carlo,
which stems from 1961 and is one of Poulenc’s very last works,
not exactly a song but a scene for voice and orchestra. It has
the lilt of a cabaret song, a genre that Poulenc touched more
than once, as did his predecessor Satie.
Presenting the songs in chronological order is a sensible idea,
since it demonstrates the composer’s development ... or, is
there a noticeable development? Le Bestiaire contains
six delightful portraits of some odd members of the fauna, youthful
and unpredictable, and that’s exactly how I would describe Poulenc’s
music from any chosen period of the four-and-a-half decades
that his activities as composer encompass. With hindsight it
might be possible to feel that Cocardes from a year later
is more advanced, more mature. But then we should also bear
in mind that Apollinaire and Cocteau, the respective poets,
were also different personalities. It may not be correct to
say that Cocteau was the ‘deeper’ of the two but Apollinaire,
back in 1911, when Le Bestiaire ou Cortège d’Orphée
was written, had a ruffianly attitude that attracted Poulenc.
The poet was at the time of writing only fractionally older
than Poulenc was when setting the poems, at which time Apollinaire
was probably already mortally ill. There is a certain confusion
concerning the year of composition. The back cover as well as
the notes to this issue say 1918; other sources give 1917 and
I’ve seen both 1919 and 1920, possibly as the year(s) of publication.
This may be an issue of purely academic interest but if someone
who has deeper knowledge could clarify this matter I would be
When we meet Poulenc in the 1930s it is definitely the master
who has come to terms with the art of writing personal and communicative
mélodies to challenge predecessors like Fauré, Duparc,
Debussy and Ravel. The piano part has become more expressive
and there is an organic connection between poem and music. It
is also notable that when he temporarily abandons contemporary
poetry and sets 16th century ‘prince of poets’ Pierre
de Ronsard’s A sa guitare, he creates one of his masterpieces.
Were it not for the piano accompaniment the song could have
been written at almost any time between, say, late 16th
century and the present day. Timeless is a hackneyed word but
I find no substitute for it in my thesaurus.
The year is 1935. Two years later the cycle Tel jour telle
nuit (Paul Eluard) shows the same mastery. This is arguably
Poulenc at his very best, showing his versatility, his lyric
side as well as his more burlesque inclinations.
Eluard is also the originator of Tu vois le feu du soir,
certainly one of the most beautiful French songs of all times.
The year is 1938 and dark clouds loom over the horizon to the
east. In two years’ time the war is there and the Nazi occupants
invade France. In the midst of turmoil and despair Poulenc returns
to Apollinaire and Banalités. There is a hint of the
ruffian of twenty years earlier but the shadows are longer and
darker ... Lighter moods are to be found in the three Metamorphoses
from 1943, where No. II, C’est ainsi que tu es is a song
of immense beauty, while No. 3, swift and virtuosic, is a nice
portrait of Paganini.
The war over he sets again Apollinaire in 1948, Voyages.
The composer is not yet 50 but here the gamin is far away;
this is a man who has passed the zenith of his powers. We know
that several great works were still to come, but he seems to
have started count-down. Beautiful but sad, as is La souris
from 1956 and the concluding La dame de Monte-Carlo,
in spite of some cabaret references, is enveloped in dark veils.
This recital would be recommendable for the programme and the
opportunity to follow Poulenc’s career as a composer of Mélodies
during forty years, whoever the singer was. As it happens
it is Felicity Lott. I can’t imagine a better interpreter of
Opera lovers know her as one of the greatest Mozart and Richard
Strauss interpreters; her Feldmarschallin in Der Rosenkavalier
at the Vienna State Opera in the mid-1990s is a memory for life.
But her command of French is marvellous and seeing and hearing
her La belle Hélène on DVD (review in the pipeline) one
can’t imagine that she isn’t a native. That is also the impression
one gets from the first bars until the end of this wonderful
recital. Without exaggerated word-painting and over-emphasis
she manages to make the poems tell; her declamation marvellously
expressive and alive. But what makes this disc stand out even
more is the sheer beauty of her singing. Listen to A sa guitare
(tr. 13) where her sensitive floated pianissimo singing is absolutely
magical. Tu vois le feu du soir (tr. 23) is another song
one should avoid listening to if one has decided not to buy
this disc. It is hard to imagine more beautiful singing. And
these are only two isolated examples. With her long-time piano
partner Graham Johnson playing as sensitively as ever and a
perfectly balanced recording that further enhances the experience,
it is well-nigh criminal not to buy this disc. The only
drawback is that there are no translations, which will be a
disadvantage to listeners with limited knowledge of French.
There have been other important interpreters of Poulenc, most
notably Pierre Bernac, who worked with Poulenc from 1926 until
his retirement around 1960. On Testament there is a 3-CD box
with Bernac, singing a lot of other composers as well, even
including a complete Dichterliebe. There are 30 Poulenc
songs, an interview with Bernac by Graham Johnson and the half-hour-long
L’Histoire de Babar, narrated by Bernac with Johnson
at the piano. Closer in time there is a 4-CD box on EMI, claiming
to be the complete Poulenc songs with Elly Ameling, Nicolai
Gedda, Michel Senéchal and Gerard Souzay. The real enthusiasts
will need both these boxes but even they can’t afford to be
without Felicity Lott and Graham Johnson.