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Hyperion Records

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Track(s) taken from CDA68021/4
Recording details: May 2010
All Saints' Church, East Finchley, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Julian Millard
Release date: October 2013
Total duration: 1 minutes 52 seconds

'Johnson's playing is marvellous, virtuosic where needed, but above all attuned to every nuance of his singers. This really is a multifaceted release: the blending of the art forms that was characteristic of Poulenc's time, where poets were absorbed by painters, and composers by poets, alongside the 15 singers gathered on these discs, together with the chameleon-like nature of Poulenc's own genius, all make for an enterprise of dazzling complexity. The recording quality is exemplary, combining clarity with a perfect bloom on the piano sound' (International Record Review)

'There are some outstanding performances: Christopher Maltman's account of Miroirs brûlants and La fraîcheur et le feu (both based on Eluard), and the Calligrammes (on Apollinaire's texts) are worth the price on their own, while Sarah Fox is just as persuasive in Les chemins de l'amour as she is in Tel jour telle nuit. There are telling contributions, too, from Ailish Tynan, Susan Bickley and Ben Johnson, and a brief appearance in the Quatre chansons pour enfants by the English grande dame of French song Felicity Lott. Touchingly, one work also features the voice of baritone Pierre Bernac, Poulenc's recital partner, for whom many of the songs were composed; he's the narrator in a 1977 recording of L'histoire de Babar and the whole set is dedicated to his memory. It's a gorgeous collection, and for sometime Poulenc sceptics like me, a real revelation' (The Guardian) » More

'Especially enjoyable is the final disc, subtitled Fancy. Soprano Susan Bickley is superb in Poulenc’s early Poèmes de Ronsard—sparky settings of Renaissance poetry, and Ashley Riches has fun with the better-known Chansons gaillardes. The Huit chansons polonaises, sung by Agnieszka Adamczak, pay oblique homage to Poulenc’s beloved Chopin. There’s not a weak link among the vocal cast, and there’s even a cameo from the great Felicity Lott. A wonderful bonus is the inclusion of a 1970s BBC taping of Babar, narrated with impeccable grace and wit by Poulenc’s long-time recital partner Pierre Bernac. Johnson’s accessible, comprehensive notes deserve to be published in book form, and Hyperion generously provide full texts and translations. These songs will comfort the most jaded of palates, and this box set contains enough riches to sustain a lifetime’s listening. In Johnson’s words, Poulenc’s music 'has seemed dark and joyous, accessible and remote, imperishable yet infinitely fragile, and now it is in the hands of a younger generation'.' (TheArtsDesk.com)

Le portrait, FP92
First line:
Belle, méchante, menteuse, injuste
composer
March 1938
author of text

Introduction
The famously bi-sexual novelist Colette (1873–1954) was known for most of her life simply by her surname—her full name was Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette. She also wrote the occasional poem-in-prose and it was one of these, printed on a handkerchief in facsimile, that she gave Poulenc when he visited her in hospital and asked her for something to set to music. Colette was bedridden and in great pain for the final years of her life, but she was a woman of enormous spirit, an undoubted national treasure, and Poulenc was an admirer without being a close friend.

Bernac points out that this is ‘not one of Poulenc’s most beautiful works’, but he would also have to agree that it is a fine setting of the poem that is vicious and tender by turns, unsurprisingly feline in view of the writer’s celebrated passion for cats. As a complete one-off the composer felt free to make a musical portrait of Colette, someone both imperiously demanding and insecure, adorable, but dangerous when crossed. It was Bernac who gave the song’s first performance in 1939, but despite ‘quand je suis bon’ (signalling a male narrator) the poem seems written in Colette’s voice—a woman writing of another woman in a mood of passionate and love-stricken exasperation. The marking Très violent et emporté conveys the intensity of the song, which hurtles forward in a musical tidal-wave of passion and jealousy. The text describes the paradoxical behaviour of the beloved in a similar way to the (very different) hymn to Nusch Éluard, Nous avons fait la nuit from Tel jour telle nuit. One song is a mirror image of the other: the Éluard, with enormous lyrical calm, describes the love of soul mates, in this case heterosexual; Le portrait reflects the emotional turbulence and tension of a homosexual relationship teetering on the edge. The composer understood both states of mind as part of his own experience.

from notes by Graham Johnson © 2013

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