Hommage à Francis Poulenc

Francis POULENC (1899 – 1963)
Le Bestiaire (1918)
1. I. Le Dromadaire [1:32]
2. II. La Chèvre du Tibet [0:36]
3. III. La Sauterelle [0:23]
4. IV. Le Dauphin [0:30]
5. V. L’Ecrevisse [0:49]
6. VI. La Carpe [1:10]
Cocardes (1919)
7. I. Miel de Narbonne [2:50]
8. II. Bonne d’Enfant [2:00]
9. III. Enfant de Troupe [2:11]
Trois Poemes de Louise Lalanne (1931)
10. I. Le Présent [0:53]
11. II. Chanson [0:40]
12. III. Hier [1:52]
13. A sa Guitare (1935) [2:40]
Tel Jour Telle Nuit (1937)
14. I. Bonne journée [2:35]
15. II. Une coquille vide [2:10]
16. III. Le front comme un drapeau perdu [1:06]
17. IV. Une roulotte couverte en tuiles [0:58]
18. V. A toutes brides [0:36]
19. VI. Une herbe pauvre [1:37]
20. VII. Je n’ai envie que de t’aimer [0:48]
21. VIII. Figure de force brÛlante et farouche [1:25]
22. IX. Nous avons fait la nuit [3:24]
23. Tu vois le feu du soir (1938) [4:11]
Banalités (1940)
24. I. Chanson d’Orkenise [1:27]
25. II. Hôtel [2:01]
26. III. Fagnes de Wallonie [1:30]
27. IV. Voyage à Paris [0:53]
28. V. Sanglots [4:22]
Metamorphoses (1943)
29. I. Reine des Mouettes [0:53]
30. II. C’est ainsi que tu es [2:15]
31. III. Paganini [0:57]
32. Voyages (1948) [2:58]
33. La Souris (1956) [0:52]
34. La Dame de Monte-Carlo (1961)
Felicity Lott (soprano), Graham Johnson (piano)
rec. February 1994, Rosslyn Hill Chapel, London
Sung texts enclosed but no translations
FORLANE FOR16730 [64:26]

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 grateful.

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 these songs.

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.

Göran Forsling

It is hard to imagine more beautiful singing. Well-nigh criminal not to buy this disc.