There are many wonderful things about the Hyperion label, but one of them is the exquisite style with which they do complete editions of a composer’s songs. It’s something for which they’re becoming quietly famous. This complete Poulenc edition may not be as large-scale an offering as, say, their complete Schubert, Schumann or Strauss songs, but it is every bit as praiseworthy and as collectable.
The linchpin of the set is Graham Johnson, who accompanies every song. He also writes the booklet notes, which amount to a book about Poulenc’s songs that would deserve a place on any library shelf. Johnson is scholarly in his research about the background to the composer and to all the poets involved. His final “personal memoir” is a lovely way to finish the booklet. Full texts and translations are provided, but Johnson’s essays are every bit as useful.
Equally delightful is the way he has carefully curated each disc. His approach is neither chronological nor thematic; instead he organises each disc around a certain idea that holds together more or less well. The first disc, for example, contains (nearly) all the songs set to words by female writers whereas the third disc is very loosely focused on Paris. As an organising principle it’s effective enough, and it’s another aspect of the very individual nature of this collection.
What makes Hyperion perhaps the very best of all labels at making complete song editions is the way they combine unimpeachable quality with a sparkling variety of artists. The first disc is launched by Ailish Tynan who sings the Lalane poèmes with supple skill and a little touch of stridency. She tackles the Vilmorin poèmes brilliantly, with similar intensity and more than a hint of the erotic. She also brings exceptional intelligence to the cycle Fiançailles pour rire, skittish in the opening, strangely profound in Dans l'herbe, breathless in Il vole, richly suggestive in Mon cadavre est doux, delicately poised in Fleurs. This cycle is, for me, the highlight of the first disc, not just because of the skill of the performances but because of the depth and breadth of the songs themselves. La courte paille is every bit as inspired, though. The composer's final cycle, it is more spare than its predecessors, but every bit as enchanting in its casual beauty and its hints at child-like innocence. The final song to the moon is a delight. Felicity Lott brings a delightfully spry sense of humour to the Quatre chansons pour enfant, and her brief spell is so excellent that it makes me regret that she didn’t turn up elsewhere on the set. For all its brevity, Geraldine McGreevy turns the Collette song into a stormy ride through an endless sea of passions.
Delightfully, Hyperion found a way of involving Pierre Bernac, one of Poulenc’s most famous recital partners. Somewhat along the lines of the way they involved Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in their complete Schubert edition, Hyperion use a 1977 BBC recording of Bernac as the narrator in L’histoire de Babar. It is wonderful to have him represented, and he is as close as we get in this set to the composer himself.
The second disc features a lot of poems by Paul Éluard, a surrealist poet who engaged Poulenc on a number of profound levels. Ben Johnson's smooth, alluring tenor is perfect for conveying the poet's sensual world, most notably in Rôdeuse au front de verre. Later on, C is full of half-implied regret, while Fêtes galantes rings with biting irony. Sarah Fox is marvellous in Tel jour telle nuit. She treads a fine line between interest and indolence in Bonne journée, and Une ruine coquille vide seems to drip with a feeling of regret. Une herbe pauvre is exceptionally moving, for all its brevity, and the raw energy that opens Figure de force brûlante et farouche comes as a real surprise. She then utterly embraces the populist lilt of Les chemins de l’amour, a delectable song that might have stepped right off the stage of a Parisian cabaret bar.
Christopher Maltman sounds fantastic too. The high writing in Tu vois le feu du soir makes his voice sound ethereal without being strained. He summons up plenty of irony in Le disparu but is all poignancy for …mais mourir. He is also marvellous in the Apollinaire settings, each one a programmatic masterpiece. Geraldine McGreevy brings strength and vocal weight to Le travail au peintre, a cycle of songs setting poems about the work of painters who were contemporary with both poet and composer. The painters include Picasso, Chagall, Klee and Miró. It’s an interesting idea and there is plenty of good music in it, especially in the song about Jacques Villon. However, to my mind the cycle gets a bit carried away by its own importance. This is the part of the disc I enjoyed least. Maltman ends the disc beautifully with Éluard's Chanson de porcelaine.
The third disc claims to have Paris at its centre, but the organising principle is pretty loosely applied. Often it is the mood of Paris that is evoked, rather than the city itself. Consequently, the disc features heavily the city's poet sans pareil, Apollinaire. However, Apollinaire is merely the first among equals, and the disc also features a cycle, Airs chantés, which is actually designed to mock the Parisian poet, Jean Moréas. Ailish Tynan buys into the joke and her singing is by turns serious or sensational as required.
However, the singing is of a less consistently excellent quality on this disc. Le bestiaire, for example, is charming music, delightfully played but, to my ears, Brandon Velarde sings a little too self-consciously for the material. He is more natural in Pierrot and more convincing in the two Jacob songs, though fairly uncertain in the numbers that follow. Nor did I really enjoy Ivan Ludlow’s voice in his songs on this disc. He sounds more nasal and less clear than most of the other singers. When compared with Maltman on the previous disc the comparison is extremely unflattering. I can’t help but feel that his two Apollinaire cycles would have been better given to someone else. When you put him alongside Sarah-Jane Brandon, with whom he shares the cycle Banalités, the results are even less flattering.
More happily, Robin Tritschler sings the Cocteau settings of Cocardes with wit and good humour, and they have very appealing melodies; they are, after all, entitled chansons populaires. He is excellent in Le Pont and wonderful in Bleuet, a poignant depiction of a young soldier. Sarah-Jane Brandon creates an atmosphere in which to lose oneself in Le Grenouillère and she is equally impressive in her contributions to Banalités. Their duet in Colloques contributes a welcome splash of variety to the dominance of the solo voice.
La dame de Monte Carlo, a superb monologue composed for Denise Duval, was originally written for voice and orchestra but is given here in its piano arrangement. It's a wonderful piece (with words by Cocteau) and Nicole Tibells sings it with honesty, but to me she is a touch too warbly and a younger sounding voice might have been more pleasant … if less dramatically authentic. Her final phrase - and the splash on the piano - are marvellous, but similar problems afflict her singing of the five Jacob poèmes on disc four, where she sounds a touch too histrionic for comfort.
The final disc has the more catch-all title of Fancy, and Johnson describes this disc as “a dazzling gallimaufry of a programme”. Susan Bickley is the most impressive presence on this disc. She brings wonderful authority to the Ronsard songs, especially Je n’ai plus que les os, where the poet contemplates mortality. She is also remarkably moving in Charles d’Orléans’ Prayer for peace, and she does her best with the Lorca songs without making a case for them as great works of the genre. At the other extreme of the spectrum, Ashley Riches has a whale of a time in the bawdy Chansons Gaillardes. The Polish songs are absolutely charming: they contain more than a hint of a tribute to Chopin, and are sung with plenty of character and native inflection from Polish soprano Agnieszka Adamczak.
Maltman returns for the Chansons Villageoises, and it is lovely to hear him letting his hair down and getting fully into the peasant spirit of the songs, though he sings C’est le joli printemps with compelling purity and he gets the measure of the darkness of Le mendiant. However, Neal Davies does not sound at home in Racine’s Hymne, nor in Vilmorin’s Mazurka. It is a nice touch to end the set with Fancy, though, Poulenc’s only song in English, which is attractive partly because, as Johnson points out in his notes, it is so very un-English in style.
The greatest hero of the set remains Graham Johnson himself. As well as writing the booklet notes and organising the whole adventure, Johnson proves himself to be the most sensitive and accomplished of accompanists, ensuring that every single song is a partnership between singer and pianist, with chemistry that flows both ways. The recorded sound is excellent, the presentation is luxurious, and while experiencing this set I had the repeated impression that I was interacting with something of the very highest class. There are other intégrales of Poulenc’s songs out there, but I can’t imagine that any of them can approach this one for the overall quality of its approach. It’s also extremely competitively priced, helped by the fact that all four discs are packed to bursting point, so it’s very good value indeed.
CD 1 Métamorphoses [79:59]
1 Trois poèmes de Louise Lalanne FP57 [3:46] Ailish Tynan (soprano)
4 Quatre chansons pour enfants FP75 [10:13] Felicity Lott (soprano)
8 Trois poèmes de Louise de Vilmorin FP91 [6:24] Ailish Tynan (soprano)
11 Le portrait FP92 [1:52] Geraldine McGreevy (soprano)
12 Fiançailles pour rire FP101 [12:21] Ailish Tynan (soprano)
18 L’histoire de Babar, le petit éléphant FP129 [28:32] Pierre Bernac (narrator)
21 Métamorphoses FP121 [4:20] Geraldine McGreevy (soprano)
24 Nuage - No. 2 of Deux mélodies FP162 [2:13] Geraldine McGreevy (soprano)
25 La courte paille FP178 [10:17] Ailish Tynan (soprano)
CD2 Main dominée par le Coeur [76:42]
1 Cinq poèmes de Paul Éluard FP77 [6:50] Ben Johnson (tenor)
6 Tel jour telle nuit FP86 [15:06] Sarah Fox (soprano)
15 Miroirs brûlants FP98 [5:46] Christopher Maltman (baritone)
17 Ce doux petit visage FP99 [1:54] Ailish Tynan, soprano
18 Les chemins de l’amour FP106 [3:28] Sarah Fox (soprano)
19 Deux poèmes de Louis Aragon FP122 [4:21] Ben Johnson (tenor)
21Le disparu FP134 [1:31] Christopher Maltman (baritone)
22 Main dominée par le coeur FP135 [1:21] Geraldine McGreevy (soprano)
23 … mais mourir FP137 [1:35] Christopher Maltman (baritone)
24 Calligrammes FP140 [10:50] Christopher Maltman (baritone)
31 La fraîcheur et le feu FP147 [8:10] Christopher Maltman (baritone)
38 Le travail du peintre FP161 [12:15] Geraldine McGreevy (soprano)
45 Dernier poème FP163 [2:05] Geraldine McGreevy (soprano)
46 Une chanson de porcelaine FP169 [1:27] Christopher Maltman (baritone)
CD 3 Parisiana [79:36]
1 Toréador FP11 [5:13] Ivan Ludlow (baritone)
2 Le bestiaire, ou Cortège d:Orphée FP15a [5:03] Brandon Velarde (baritone)
8 Deux mélodies inédites du bestiaire FP15b [1:15] Brandon Velarde (baritone)
10 Cocardes FP16 [6:44] Robin Tritschler (tenor)
13 Airs chantés FP46 [6:47] Ailish Tynan, soprano
17 Quatre poèmes de Guillaume Apollinaire FP58 [4:48] Ivan Ludlow (baritone)
21 Pierrot FP66 [0:51] Brandon Velarde (baritone)
22 Deux poèmes de Guillaume Apollinaire FP94 [6:42] Ivan Ludlow (baritone)
24 La Grenouillère FP96 [2:01] Sarah-Jane Brandon (soprano)
25 Bleuet FP102 [3:10] Robin Tritschler (tenor)
26 Banalités FP107 [10:28] Ivan Ludlow (baritone) & Sarah-Jane Brandon (soprano)
31 Colloque FP108 [3:03] Robin Tritschler (tenor) & Geraldine McGreevy (soprano)
32 Deux mélodies de Guillaume Apollinaire FP127 [4:36] Sarah-Jane Brandon (soprano) & Ivan Ludlow (baritone)
34 Deux mélodies sur des poèmes de Guillaume Apollinaire FP131 [3:14] Robin Tritschler (tenor) & Ivan Ludlow (baritone)
36 Paul et Virginie FP132 [1:06] Geraldine McGreevy (soprano)
37 Parisiana FP157 [2:37] Brandon Velarde (baritone)
39 Rosemonde FP158 [2:08] Brandon Velarde (baritone)
40 La souris No 1 of Deux mélodies FP162 [0:56] Brandon Velarde (baritone)
41 La puce [0:54] Brandon Velarde (baritone)
42 La dame de Monte-Carlo FP180 [7:57] Nicole Tibells (soprano)
CD4 Fancy [77:30]
1 Poèmes de Ronsard FP38 [11:23] Susan Bickley (mezzo)
6 Chansons gaillardes FP42 [11:20] Ashley Riches (baritone)
14 Vocalise FP44 [3:17] Geraldine McGreevy (soprano)
15 Épitaphe FP55 [1:34] Neal Davies (bass)
16 Cinq poèmes de Max Jacob FP59 [8:53] Nicole Tibells (soprano)
21 Huit chansons polonaises FP69 [10:56] Agnieszka Adamczak (soprano)
29 À sa guitare FP79 [2:34] Geraldine McGreevy (soprano)
30 Priez pour paix FP95 [2:42] Susan Bickley (mezzo)
31 Chansons villageoises FP117 [11:39] Christopher Maltman (baritone)
37 Trois chansons de F García Lorca FP136 [4:18] Susan Bickley (mezzo)
40 Hymne FP144 [3:40] Neal Davies (bass)
41 Mazurka FP145 [3:25] Neal Davies (bass)
42 Fancy FP174 [1:48] Geraldine McGreevy (soprano)