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Clairières dans le Ciel - Les Musiciens et la Grande Guerre Volume 13
Pierre VELLONES (1889-1939)
Lettre du front [5.19]
Aux Gonzes qui se débinent [1.30]
Joseph Guy ROPARTZ (1864-1955)
Quatre odelettes (1914) [18.21]
Georges MIGOT (1891-1976)
Sept petites images du Japon (1917) [7.59]
Jacques de la PRESLE (1886-1969)
Chanson de la Rose [2.58]
La Branche d’acacia [1.20]
Heureux ceux qui sont morts [3.32]
Lili BOULANGER (1893-1918)
Clairières dans le ciel [1914) [33.25]
Duo Contraste (Cyrille Dubois (tenor); Tristan Raës (piano))
rec. Abbaye de Royaumont (Val d’Oise), 2-6 March 2015
HORTUS 713 [73.42]

It was a coincidence and a privilege to be able to listen to much of this CD during the period from Remembrance Sunday to Armistice Day. The disc takes its title from a song cycle by Lili Boulanger whose life was cut so tragically short by illness. The other composers lived through the Great War and the second war with the exception of Pierre Vellones a name new to me but in reality was known as Pierre Rousseau, an auxiliary physician drafted into the 117th regiment. He fell in love with the area around Velosnes in the Meuse (Lorraine region) and so changed his name.

Vellones’ beautiful song Lettre du front opens the disc and his more aggressive and cynical setting of Aux Gonzes qui se debinent ends it. 'Gonzes' can be translated as ‘dudes’, by the way.

Then we launch into the Quatre Odelettes, a four-part song-cycle by Guy Ropartz who lived to be over 90. By 1914 he was already a man of 48. I’m not sure how this song fits into the pattern of the disc as it was written before the First War started. It comprises settings of nature-evocative poems by the symbolist poet Henri de Régnier (d.1936). Ropartz’s language is both Romantically tonal and impressionistic, the latter especially in song No. 1 Un petit Roseau m’a suffi (A small reed was enough to make me shudder when in the high grass). There is a passionate setting of Si tu disais, the longest poem (If you said here is Autumn, which comes sweetly through the dry leaves).

You have to put up with my own translations of the texts by the way as the thick CD booklet –some fifty pages - manages to translate the essays and the lengthy and tedious biographies but not the texts. This is not only irksome but does not allow most non-French-speaking listeners to take in the full meaning behind the sounds. In French songs, which can be so wordy, it is particularly vital to understand how the composer set them.

The opening essay by Philippe D’Anchald tells us that Editions Hortus “on the occasion of the World War 1 commemorations, attempts to supply an answer” to the three questions posed at the beginning of the essay. One of these is “What was the impact of the conflict on the composers’ inspiration?” Georges Migot was invalided out of the war after only six weeks at the front. He later returned and survived. He wrote his aphoristic settings of Japanese poems in 1917 ‘Sept petites images du Japon’. Interestingly they are part of the ‘Cycle de Heian’ - 11th Century poetry. It’s surely no coincidence that ‘Heian’ means ‘peace’. The last song Sur la lande (On the moor) especially appealed with its silvery melodic line and colourful piano part which attracted me. It's Migot’s use of the complete range of the piano, its varying sonorities and bi-tonal harmonies which fascinate throughout these songs.

The title of the CD is that of the thirteen songs which constitute of Lili Boulanger’s cycle Clairières dans le Ciel (‘Clearings in the sky’). The text is by another symbolist poet, Francis Jammes. Alexandra Laedrich devotes a two-page essay just to Boulanger and this cycle. I’ll quote; the text evokes “the moments of happiness spent with the beloved but henceforth absent … telling of the slow sentimental erosion that led him/her to a failed love”. The musical mood is nostalgic and melancholy and eleven of the songs are slow and very expressive. The two faster ones Un poète disait (A poet said that when he was young) with its playful Debussian accompaniment, and Deux ancolies (Two columbines swayed on the hill) with its floating and fleeting piano part which reminded me of one of her teachers, Gabriel Fauré, are the only respite from the mood and sense of loss. This was also the composer’s most prominent emotion as she knew of her imminent death from tuberculosis, but not before setting up with her sister an organization to help injured French soldiers. Incidentally on a disc entitled ‘In Memoriam Lili Boulanger’ (Marco Polo 8.223636) four of the songs are offered by an unconvincing soprano.

Jacques de la Presle composed his three songs whilst at the front as stretcher-bearer, in 1916. He was almost killed in a gas attack in 1918. The first, Chanson dans la rose is deliciously Romantic and has a text by M. Robert. The second, La Branche d’acacia, dedicated to his fiancée, is deliberately ‘artless’ but quite lovely. It has a text written for the composer by Jean Richepin. The third has a rather funereal feel with a text - Heureux ceux qui sont morts - by Péguy who died early on in the war. All three songs are moving and passionate.

Cyrille Dubois and Tristan Raës are a true ‘Duo’. This music, especially the Boulanger cycle is for two equal participants who are ardently tuned to each other and to the varying subtleties of the music. They achieve this wonderfully from line to line which can suddenly alter emotional course. Sometimes Dubois sounds a little strained and stressed in his highest register, perhaps recording in the vastness of the l’Abbaye de Royaumont was not always helpful although it’s a beautiful place (about 30 miles north of Paris). In a sense that occasional trauma in the voice adds to the tension inherent in the music. In the case of the Boulanger cycle it would be quite an emotional drain to perform as there are few stops for the voice and few moments of relaxation.

If you feel strongly about early twentieth century French song then this disc is most certainly worth exploring. Otherwise if you are new to this repertoire perhaps something more general and with a wider outlook might be a good place to start.

Gary Higginson



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