Patricia Petibon: La Belle Excentrique
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Patricia Petibon and Susan Manoff: “La Belle Excentrique”

spacer Songs by Fauré, Satie, Ferré, Poulenc and others. With Py, vocals. Texts and translations. Deutsche Grammophon 479 2465


The compact disc as a physical object, whether the music is classical or pop, is of interest to very few people nowadays. One response from musicians has been an adjustment to the new climate of downloadable single tracks and bite-sized clips that don’t suffer from being part of a shuffle. Patricia Petibon’s new disc does exactly the opposite. Her program happens to contain nearly thirty tracks, but they all go together as a single performance, and they need to be heard in the order in which she presents them. The program is at its core a song recital, but Petibon and pianist Susan Manoff have invited some off-the-cuff participation from a second pianist, a second vocalist, an accordion player and a percussionist. The structure is something of an after-dinner talent show, with relentless high spirits to start, a passing moment halfway through when everybody gets a little soupy and sentimental as the Pernod kicks in, a strategic regrouping for a few big numbers, and one sad song too many at the end to send everybody to the pile of coats on the bed. At times, there’s a deliberately amateurish quality. The second vocalist is Olivier Py, who is not quite a singer (he is quite a director, having mounted a production of Berg’s Lulu for Petibon), and the percussion parts give the illusion of improvisations that non-musicians might toss in from the sidelines. 

There are a few of the French repertoire’s greatest hits, by Fauré and Poulenc, but most of the music is unfamiliar. There’s a good deal of Satie, including two of the zippy Sports et Divertissements (piano only, without the sardonic words). If Petibon is perfectly capable of singing two un-ironic love songs, she nonetheless might separate them with a Satie can-can. But Satie can also have a side that is quietly aghast, and his brief “Désespoir agréable” makes a perfect piano transition into the set of downcast numbers that begins with Fauré’s “Spleen.” There is a particularly clever transition where Satie’s “Grande Ritournelle” for piano four-hands at first seems to be a gussied-up version of Poulenc’s song “Les gars qui vont à la fête,” but it is the real thing, and the real Poulenc song follows. Among the discoveries are Reynaldo Hahn’s “Pholoé,” a rare song about aging, and the music of Léo Ferré, who turns out to be right up there with Michel Legrand. 

Petibon is having such a good time managing to be loose and crazy even though this is a studio production that she disarms criticism. She can be dirty without being sleazy in the duets with Py. She can drip crocodile tears at the end of “Les gars” but then sing Poulenc’s “Voyage à Paris” without mocking it and deliver two of those quietly devastating Poulenc songs, “Hier” and “Aux Officiers de la Garde Blanche,” with equilibrium. It’s perhaps worth noting that a tiny Manuel Rosenthal song about a zoo elephant who wets his pants has been turned into something impossibly grand by the full company here, and it is funny. But Régine Crespin used to stop the show with this number by underplaying it. Times change, and I love this album. Twice, by the time Rosenthal songs came up, I felt that one piece too many had all that extra percussion. And then twice, just as I do when the cantina tune keeps coming back in Milhaud’s Le Boeuf sur le Toit, I succumbed unreservedly with a giggle. Madoff, among many virtues, totally gets the deadpan, unreadable quality of Satie’s accompaniments, and the idiomatic English translations of Susannah Howe and James Harding add immeasurably to the considerable enjoyment of this release. spacer 


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