Francis POULENC (1899-1963)

The Complete Songs - Vol. 1
Cocardes (1919) [6:41] *
Metamorphoses (1943) [4:44] **
Chansons gaillardes (1926) [12:32] ***
À sa guitare (1935) [2:56] ****
Épitaphe sur un texte de Malherbe (1930) [1:13] *****
Trois Poèmes de Louise de Vilmorin (1937) [6:36] ****
Bleuet (1939) [3:21] *
Dernier poème (1956) [2:05] **
Rosemonde (1954) [1:56] ***
Fiançailles pour rire (1939) [14:24] **
Parisiana (1954) [2:30] *
La Courte Paille (1960) [10:35] ******
Lorna Anderson (soprano) ****; Jonathan Lemalu (bass-baritone) *****; Felicity Lott (soprano) ******; Christopher Maltman ***; Lisa Milne (soprano) **; Robert Murray (tenor) *; Malcolm Martineau (piano)
rec. 14-20 February, 6-10 September 2010 – St. Michael and All Angels in Summertown, Oxford
It is often remarked – and few would demur - that Poulenc was one of the finest melodists of the 20th-century, and surely there can be no greater advantage for a prolific song-writer. His total of about 150 songs spans his entire creative life, and Signum seem to intend to record them all. I believe that even some previously unrecorded songs will feature. I don't imagine I am alone in finding this a delightful prospect. Those unfamiliar with Poulenc's songs may well have a revelation awaiting them.
This first collection begins superbly with Robert Murray singing three settings of nonsense verses by Cocteau. Poulenc wrote (in Diary of my Songs) “This cycle … must be sung without irony. The essential point is to believe in the words which fly like a bird from one branch to another.” “I class Cocardes among my 'Nogent works' with the smell of chips, the accordion, Piver perfume. In a word, all that I loved at that age and that I still love.” Nogent-sur-Marne was the Poulenc family's summer home in his early years. Murray fits the bill quite brilliantly.
Next comes Lisa Milne, equally brilliant in the joyful and buoyant outer songs of Metamorphoses and touching in the central song, the most beautiful C'est ainsi que tu es. This is sung as Poulenc specified - “without affectation” - yet with no lack of sensitivity.
Christopher Maltman sings the set of eight, mostly very brief Chansons gaillardes. As Roger Nichols suggests in his authoritative notes, “ribald” is the most suitable meaning of “gaillardes” in this context – at least for those songs with quite rude words. Maltman is wonderfully bloated in the second – Chanson à boire – in which the anonymous 17th-centurt poet ridicules the Egyptian and Syrian kings who have their dead bodies embalmed, advising us to embalm ourselves in drink while we are still alive. Maltman is excellent throughout, with some of the best French diction on the CD, but Gilles Cachemaille lets himself go rather more on Decca (4 CDs - Poulenc mélodies).
Both in À sa guitare and the three settings of Louise de Vilmorin (“Few people move me as much as [L de V]”, wrote Poulenc, “because she is beautiful, because she is lame, because she writes French of an innate purity”) Lorna Anderson is splendid, apart from a slightly uncomfortable high passage in the last verse of the third Vilmorin setting (“Confiez dans l'espace”). However, she is certainly not the only singer to have been tested at this point. Also, Poulenc's demanding instruction “vertigineusement vite” for the first song – Le Garçon de Liège - is not quite heeded. Before these three songs Jonathan Lemalu makes his sole, tantalisingly brief contribution in Épitaphe.
The next three single songs maintain the high standard, Murray being most sensitive in Bleuet. Lisa Milne is delightful in the following Fiançailles Pour Rire - six more settings of Louise de Vilmorin. Strangely,Pour Rire” is twice omitted from the track listings.
The two Max Jacob settings of Parisiana are beautifully sung by Robert Murray. Gilles Cachemaille (with Pascal Rogé on Decca – see above) has a little more character and abandon but less tonal allure. Murray's French pronunciation is very good – and this is generally true of all the singers here, with occasional minor lapses – but Felicity Lott in La Courte Paille remains a model in this respect. Her relish for the French language - one can really see the facial muscles working – and her sense of style are quite outstanding, even if the occasional note betrays a less than complete musical control.
The notes by Roger Nichols are fine, but the songs are unhelpfully discussed in a different order to that in which they are performed, while La Courte Paille is not mentioned at all! It's a pity the respective departments were not able to communicate. There are also some errors in the French texts. Overall this is a fine disc containing so many gems from one of the most loveable of composers. It should be added that Malcolm Martineau is superb throughout.

Philip Borg-Wheeler
A fine disc containing so many gems from one of the most loveable of composers.