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Hyperion Records

CDH55366 - Poulenc: Voyage à Paris
La Guitare by Marie Laurencin (1885-1956)
Aberdeen Art Gallery
CDH55366
(Originally issued on CDA66147)

Recording details: February 1984
St George the Martyr, Queen Square, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Martin Compton
Engineered by Antony Howell
Release date: June 2011
DISCID: 900F681E
Total duration: 63 minutes 55 seconds

'Highly desirable' (BBC Record Review)

'This record will enchant you. Best of the Month' (Hi-Fi News)

The Hyperion French Song Edition
Voyage à Paris
The mélodies of Francis Poulenc
Introduction  EnglishFrançais
‘Anything that concerns Paris I approach with tears in my eyes and my head full of music’ Francis Poulenc (1899–1963)

No composer was ever so in love with a metropolis as Francis Poulenc was with Paris. This ultra-sophisticate, easily bored and depressed, detested the inevitable exile from his beloved home town during concert tours in the French regions. At the end of these provincial recitals, Voyage à Paris was performed as a rather malicious encore: it is an unashamed paean of joy (and relief) at the prospect of re-entering the urban melting-pot. Poulenc wrote in his Journal de mes mélodies: ‘To any who know me it will seem quite natural that I should open my mouth like a carp to snap up the deliciously stupid lines of Voyage à Paris.’ As a teenager Poulenc had only slightly known the poet Guillaume Apollinaire (1880–1918), but even on hearing Apollinaire read his poems aloud, the young composer recognized a kindred spirit. Apollinaire was Polish–Italian by birth (Kostrowitsky was his real name) but his love for Paris had all the intensity of the convert. Montparnasse is a beguiling and nostalgic evocation of south Paris and its magic as felt by the wide-eyed and inexperienced apprentice poet. It took Poulenc some four years to piece together his setting of these words, but the seamless unfolding of the music as it follows the affectionate meanderings of the poem is a triumph: he finds tune and harmony to suggest not only the longing for vanished times of the poet’s youth in Montparnasse, but also Apollinaire’s rueful smile at his gauche, younger self—un peu bête et trop blond.

Hyde Park transfers the scene to London. It makes these twinned pieces a type of ‘Tale of Two Cities’ in song, although, as far as Hyde Park is concerned, Poulenc knew he had done far, far better things. ‘It is nothing more than a trampoline song’, he wrote, meaning that he intended it to be a quick, effective springboard into a more substantial mélodie. The vignette marked follement vite et furtif depicts the crazy preachers of Hyde Park Corner, reproving nannies airing their charges, and the pea souper fog preventing policemen from seeing enough to press theirs. Red cyclops’ eyes in the mist are nothing more mythological then the glowing of tobacco pipes.

Racy humour in both Poulenc and Apollinaire is always capable of suddenly yielding to the deepest emotion. The word ‘bleu’ is slang for a young soldier, and the title of the song Bleuet (which literally means ‘cornflower’) is a tender diminutive. The boy soldier is about to die; five o’clock is the time to leave the trenches and face the enemy fire. But there is no exaggerated heroism or patriotism in this song. Poulenc wrote: ‘Humility, whether it concerns prayer or the sacrifice of a life is what touches me most … the soul flies away after a long, last look at “la douceur d’autrefois”.’ It is Poulenc’s only mélodie for tenor, and the voice needs to be that of a Cuenod rather than a Gigli; in describing the young man of twenty, the sad waste of his life, and that long last look, the narrator’s voice should have a special and ethereal timbre. Apollinaire wrote the poem in 1917, a year or so before he himself died as a long-term result of his war wounds.

Voyage is also a moving valediction, and its words too are set in a wartime context. Who but Poulenc could have deciphered this Calligramme (Apollinaire’s name for his experiments in pictorial typography—and this one is especially puzzling in lay-out) and produced a song of such flowing lucidity? There is an atmosphere here of resigned acceptance—partings in war are often permanent farewells; the journey of Dante through the infernal realms knows no return. As in Montparnasse we are aware of an almost chemical reaction which takes place when Poulenc’s music meets the so-called surrealist poetry of Apollinaire and of Paul Éluard (1895–1952). Poulenc wrote: ‘If on my tomb were inscribed: here lies Francis Poulenc, the musician of Apollinaire and Éluard, I would consider this to be my finest title to fame.’ With his innate understanding of their work, the composer illuminates the sometimes inscrutable poetry which in turn, through its force and dignity, ensures that his lyricism never topples into sentimentality. It is as if a wonderful bargain has been struck between head and heart, between modern use of language and the old-fashioned power of melody.

Hôtel takes us back to Apollinaire’s Montparnasse, and Poulenc’s. Just after the First World War the area was the home of Picasso and Derain, of Gris and Modigliani. The composer, a connoisseur and lover of painting all his life, was excited by the avant-garde buzz of the Montparnasse of his youth. But Hôtel is not about creativity. Quite the reverse. It is about laziness. And here too, according to his friends, Poulenc was quite an authority! The opening chord suggests the first deliciously long exhalation of a Gitane’s dangerous delights. The music yawns and stretches and the smoke spirals to the ceiling in the rhythm of a very slow waltz.

The Apollinaire section of this recital ends with the earliest Poulenc mélodies on this disc, the Trois Poèmes de Louise Lalanne. Apollinaire chose this name in order to masquerade as a female poet in the pages of the literary review Marges. Montparnasse laziness got the better of him however, and he rifled through the literary jottings of his mistress in order to find something suitably feminine to meet his publishing deadline. Apollinaire’s loving collaborator was none other than the painter Marie Laurencin (1885–1956; a painting by her is on the cover of this booklet) who designed the costumes and sets for Poulenc’s first great success, the ballet Les Biches, presented by Diaghilev in 1924. Laurencin had been enthusiastically ‘discovered’ by Apollinaire in his role as influential art critic. In this song-set only the whirlwind nonsense of Chanson is by him. Le présent (where Poulenc is influenced by the implacable last movement of Chopin’s B flat minor Sonata) and Hier are Laurencin’s words. Hier is the first of Poulenc’s mélodies to employ the lyrical vein in which so many of his best songs were to be written. By 1931 when it was composed, Poulenc’s roaring twenties were behind him. The clown and ragamuffin shows in this song that he is capable of melancholy things, and he chooses the style of a smoke-filled room of a Paris boîte (the ghost of Piaf’s predecessor, Marie Dubas, hovers) to make his tender revelation.

If the Apollinaire songs are of earth and water (the feel of the Paris pavement, the sound of the Seine), the Paul Éluard songs are made of fire and air. Indeed it must be admitted that the greatest Apollinaire settings were written only after Poulenc had passed through the refining fire of contact with Éluard’s poetry. 1936 was a pivotal year: one of Poulenc’s friends, the composer Pierre-Octave Ferroud, was killed in a macabre accident; Poulenc was reconverted to catholicism as a result of a mystical experience at the shrine of the Black Virgin of Rocamadour; his song duo with the baritone Pierre Bernac was firmly established; and Éluard became a cherished collaborator in his vocal music. Out of these experiences a more serious and dedicated creator emerged, and in Bernac he had found a serious and dedicated interpreter to give voice to this new idealistic lyricism.

From this time, the cycle Tel jour telle nuit is one of Poulenc’s greatest achievements. Undeterred by superficial difficulties, the composer goes to the heart of Éluard’s texts. The poet’s own experiences (journeys, encounters, friendships, dreams, and above all his love for his wife Nusch) have gone into the making of the poems. Poulenc’s musical interpretation helps to unlock a door: behind it Éluard, the seemingly formidable intellectual, is revealed for what he really was—a poet of the people who sang unstintingly of love, the beauties of nature and the brotherhood of man. The last mélodie in this cycle, Nous avons fait la nuit, is one of the greatest love songs in French music; the poem is but one man’s explication of a relationship, yet, illuminated by Poulenc’s music, it takes on a universal significance and shows a deep understanding of the nature of love itself, and the means of its constant renewal. It is no surprise that the song’s postlude, which is the summing up of the cycle, has a power that recalls the end of a less optimistic but similarly heartfelt cycle, Schumann’s Dichterliebe.

Tu vois le feu du soir, cast in Éluard’s favourite litany form, is another love song—a hymn of praise musically translated into a gentle rhythm as immutable as the poet’s devotion. This is music which shows Poulenc’s strongly idealistic side: there is no room in the Éluard settings for lightweight caprice. However, at the same time as Tel jour telle nuit was being written, Poulenc discovered a writer whose words allowed and encouraged musical settings of charm—with (in his words) ‘a kind of sensitive audacity, of wantonness, of avidity which extended into song that which I had expressed, when very young, in Les Biches with Marie Laurencin’. Not surprisingly for a composer who loved to write for the female voice, this discovery was of a woman poet, Louise de Vilmorin (1902–1969). The poetess’s family was celebrated for the plants, seeds and flowers produced on their estate of Verrières-le-Buisson. Poulenc wrote: ‘Few people move me as much as Louise de Vilmorin: because she is beautiful, because she is lame, because she writes innately immaculate French, because her name evokes flowers and vegetables, because she loves her brothers like a lover and her lovers like a sister. Her beautiful face recalls the seventeenth century, as does the sound of her name.’

The three short songs that make up Vilmorin’s Métamorphoses are quintessential Poulenc, and indeed make up a sampler and mini-compendium of his three basic song styles: fast and capriciously lyrical (Reine des mouettes), slow (never very slow) and touchingly lyrical (C’est ainsi que tu es) and fast in the café-concert tradition, where moto perpetuo virtuosity is the thing (Paganini). That these enchanting feather-light songs stand chronologically close to Tel jour telle nuit shows the discerning versatility of Poulenc’s song-writing in the late 1930s.

Colloque, with a text by Paul Valéry (1871–1945), was unpublished until after Poulenc’s death. True to its title it is a colloquy in which the two voices never sing together. Valéry’s original title for the poem (dedicated to Poulenc) was ‘Dialogues pour deux flûtes’. The composer admitted that although he admired Valéry as much as Verlaine or Rimbaud, he was not comfortable in setting his words. The vocal line and harmonies are graceful enough, but there is no real fusion between words and music. The Deux Poèmes de Louis Aragon by contrast are perfect Poulenc. In C, Louis Aragon (1897–1982) sees the fall of France into German hands in 1940 as the sorry outcome of centuries of false values and a patriotism that had been based on class exploitation. On paper the words can seem bitter and angry, but Poulenc finds the heartbreak in them: Marxist poet and château-dwelling composer (Poulenc owned a beautiful country house at Noizay near Tours) are united in song by a common French birthright. Fêtes galantes is an antidote to too much nationalistic self-pity. The nation that produced the coolly elegant courtiers of Watteau’s ‘Fêtes galantes’ in the reign of Louis XV, now finds itself in complete disarray with the onslaught of the Nazi invaders. There is not much elegance left in the French comedy of manners, but even if manners are thrown out of the window, comedy remains. Life under the occupation changed many things, but the institution of the cabaret song, sung at full tilt, vulgar and poetic at the same time, could never be anything but defiantly, irrepressibly French.

Priez pour paix was written in the dark days of the Munich crisis. The words are by Charles, duc d’Orléans (1394–1465). Poulenc wrote: ‘I tried to give here a feeling of fervour and above all of humility (for me the most beautiful quality of prayer). It is a prayer for a country church.’ This is not only religious music; in a subtle way it strives to achieve a medieval hieratic atmosphere appropriate to the poet.

In 1935 Poulenc re-worked the music of the sixteenth-century composer Claude Gervais into his Suite française (both a chamber work and a piano suite). À sa guitare, also from this period, shows the hand of the tasteful pasticheur. All this music was, in fact, written for Margot, a play by Édouard Bourdet about Marguerite de Valois, although Poulenc chose to set lines by Pierre de Ronsard (1524–1585). It was first sung by the famous singing actress Yvonne Printemps. The orchestration of the song, as heard on Printemps’ famous recording of it, has since been lost.

The last three songs on this disc show a lighter side of the composer. Toréador (words by Jean Cocteau, 1889–1963) is the only song that contemporaries agreed the vocally ungifted Poulenc sang better (and more nasally) than anyone else. It is a farrago of Hispanic-Venetian nonsense which powerfully evokes the music-hall. It is the kind of uproarious music that the teenage Poulenc (inspired by Maurice Chevalier) could improvise by the metre; he was to transform such raw material into more subtle evocation in the songs of his maturity. Nous voulons une petite sœur is a patter song of small musical substance, but immense charm. She who can survive the pronunciation hurdles of Madame Eustache’s Christmas list deserves a diction prize and a rest from the demands of importunate children.Les chemins de l’amour is another Yvonne Printemps song, this time written for Léocadia by Jean Anouilh (1910–1987). It gives us a glimpse of how easily Poulenc could have written ‘hits’ of the time, or film music like his colleague Georges Auric. This waltz is much sung in recitals these days and over-used as an applause-earning encore. After all, España is not the best of Chabrier, nor Boléro the best of Ravel, though both are masterpieces in their way. Poulenc would have regarded this charming trifle as a petit-four to be presented only after a substantial serving of his great mélodies. But as all gourmets and song enthusiasts know, an excellent petit-four is irresistible at the right time.

Graham Johnson © 1985


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