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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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