Recordings > Choral and Song

POULENC: "The Complete Songs, Vol. 2"

spacer Anderson, Lott, Milne; Lemalu, Maltman, R. Murray; Martineau, piano. Texts, notes and translations. Signum Classics SIGCD263

Recordings Poulenc cover 312

The mélodies of Francis Poulenc owe a good deal to the freewheeling worlds of Dadaist and Surrealist poetry, in which anything is possible. This disc, second in a planned complete Poulenc song survey, offers two cycles based on a particular favorite of his, poet Paul Éluard. 

The Éluard biography is nearly as adventurous as his writing; he discovered poetry as a teenage tubercular patient in Davos (shades of The Magic Mountain) and went on to become a close friend of Picasso and other artists, a Dadaist then a Surrealist poet, a communist and a member of the resistance in World War II, hiding for months from the Germans, somewhat surrealistically, in a mental hospital. His works are nearly untranslatable but eminently quotable: "the earth is blue like an orange, never an error, words don't lie"; and "she is standing on my eyelids ... she has the color of my eye, she has the body of my hand.... " 

Obviously, interpreters are particularly challenged to keep the words clear and up front for the listener despite strenuous melodic lines. The other great requirement, almost contradicting the first, is to convey a sense of fun — something that was as crucial to Éluard or Louis Aragon or even Lorca as their dedication to political and sexual freedom.

The performances here, guided by scrupulous accompanist Malcolm Martineau, cannot erase fond memories of authoritative earlier recordings by Bernac/Poulenc (Testament SBT 3161) or Baldwin with Souzay and Gedda (EMI 64087) in which the words retain such a vivid, seemingly spontaneous profile. But this newer generation is impressive and responsible.

In the 1930s cycle Tel Jour Telle Nuit (translated "as the day, so the night," in Roger Nichols's liner note), it is hard to resist the impression that Felicity Lott, admirable and radiant as usual, is miscast for Éluard's quintessentially male poetry, with its implied haze of cigarette smoke. In these nine songs Poulenc draws on every technique in his arsenal as he chases a youthful, exultant Éluard through the streets and beds of a Paris that is both inferno and paradise. 

Lott's supple soprano embraces the rapt, hymn-like final song with irresistible beauty, but other episodes find her a mite fragile and reflective for ears accustomed to Bernac's urbanity or Gedda's hyperexcitement. Martineau's fresh pacing helps, along with subsurface details such as the sprightly left-hand "walking" theme in the first song, "Bonne journée," that contribute richly to the texture.

Le Travail du Peintre (the painter's work), a series of seven tributes to contemporary artists composed in the 1950s, is no less diverse and challenging. Baritone Christopher Maltman, even if not in his best form vocally, is both forceful and detailed in evoking an austere Picasso, a whimsical Chagall, the sense of balance in Juan Gris and a fierce authenticity in Villon. A listener may of course think of Picasso as fun-loving rather than severe, but Éluard's macho artistic worldview (backed by personal acquaintance) is well argued here both by the composer and the performers. We miss only that aforementioned sense of playfulness to soften the impression of hard work in these performances.

Poulenc seems inspired in setting Federico Garcia-Lorca, another author who was stylistically and politically daring like Éluard, but less fortunate in opposing fascism. Lorna Anderson is a revelation in the three Lorca songs marked by childlike fantasy (mixed with childlike meanness) and in the lament of a dying orange tree, which becomes nearly tragic in impact. The poised Scottish soprano also shines in the two well-known Aragon texts, especially the war dirge "C." 

Apollinaire, who coined the word "surréalisme," is of course another Poulenc favorite, and he's meticulously treated by Lott and Maltman. (The engineering favors the piano a bit too much in these selections, making Martineau's brilliance seem like upstaging.) Cocteau and Anouilh also get a song apiece, in polished, lilting performances by Maltman and Lott, respectively.

Soprano Lisa Milne stands out among the other singers, with an alluring account of "Nuage," a juicy example of the more accessible type of Poulenc song with its entrancing rhythms. 

The documentation is useful though parsimonious, translations are apt, but there is no excuse for the typos in the French texts. spacer 

DAVID J. BAKER

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Current Issue: December 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 6