As Graham Johnson points out in the superb notes to a set he has supervised so carefully and accompanies so perceptively, this is at least the fourth complete recording of Francis Poulenc’s songs. Its appearance marks the year’s 50th anniversary of the composer’s death, and also pre-empts the completion of another survey, on Signum, which still has two discs to go.
Johnson has arranged the 150-odd songs thematically rather than chronologically across the four discs. Settings of Paul Eluard, whose poetry was at the emotional heart of Poulenc’s songwriting, dominate the second volume—its title, Main Dominée par le Coeur, is a line from one of them—while texts by Apollinaire make up the bulk of the third, Parisiana. The Eluard sequence contains many of Poulenc’s greatest songs; Johnson calls the best known of them, the cycle Tel Jour telle nuit, his 'watershed work'. The depths they explore are worlds away from the brittle, facetious surfaces of Poulenc’s early orchestral and instrumental music. Even the genre pieces, like the delicious waltz setting of Jean Anouilh’s Les chemins de l’amour and the 'monologue' composed for Denise Duval, La dame de Monte Carlo, are always more than just empty party turns.
As always, Johnson matches singers to songs meticulously. 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.