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French Connections

John Mark Ainsley (tenor), Malcolm Martineau (piano)
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Recording details: February 2013
Crear Studio, Argyll, Scotland
Produced by Philip Hobbs
Engineered by Philip Hobbs
Release date: November 2015
Total duration: 69 minutes 57 seconds

Cover artwork: Cover image by Jimmy Symonds.

John Mark Ainsley’s cleverly constructed recital highlights the personal and musical connections of four of the twentieth century’s best song writers: Britten, Poulenc, Heggie and Berkeley. Sympathetic accompaniment comes from Malcolm Martineau, to whom Heggie’s Friendly Persuasions is dedicated.

A 24-bit 192 kHz studio master for this album is available from the Linn Records website.


'This is a sort of ‘American in Paris’ tribute, with cameos of four French leading lights who were close to Poulenc … all delivered here beguilingly' (Gramophone)

'John Mark Ainsley and accompanist Malcolm Martineau gave the premiere of this bittersweet short cycle in 2008. Alongside they present persuasive performances' (Financial Times)» More

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In the final moments of Jake Heggie’s opera Dead Man Walking (2000), Joseph De Rocher is executed for the booze-induced slaying of two teenage lovers. The scene is stitched into a performance of the Lord’s Prayer, sung by protestors outside the prison, the chaplain inside, guards, inmates, family members, the warden and Sister Helen Prejean, De Rocher’s counsellor and confessor. It is a cumulatively overwhelming moment in the theatre, Heggie’s enthusiastic hat-tip to Poulenc’s Dialogue des Carmélites, the final minutes of which depict (in real time) the fate of an order of Carmelite nuns condemned by the Revolutionary Tribunal in 1790s France, with memories of the grisly September Massacres, in which priests and prisoners were murdered in the street and penitentiaries, still fresh. In the opera’s last minutes, each nun walks to the scaffold singing the Salve Regina, admirably defiant in her imminent martyrdom, until only one voice remains, that of young Sister Blanche. The repeated fall of the guillotine blades chills the blood and punctuates both the scene and the nuns’ lives. Heggie’s borrowing from Poulenc was in fact a tribute to a tribute, since the composer of Carmélites was himself looking back to French grand opera of the 1830s, the conventions of which Berlioz dismissed (rather too quickly) for leaning heavily on drum-beaten processions of priests, skaters and horses, jugglers and choirboys, military bands and canopied cardinals.

There is further kinship between the two composers, for both cut their teeth on miniature forms, mastering song and small-scale genres before tackling, in middle age, grand opera; this is what apprenticeships are for, after all. Yet both men’s early songs were almost a reactionary gesture. The beau-monde salon world of Fauré and Chabrier was decades behind him when, in the 1910s, Poulenc wrote his first mélodie. And though Charles Ives and William Bolcom gifted a superb repertoire of songs to the concert hall, Broadway, not Carnegie Hall, was home to the most innovative American song composers of the twentieth century. In both men, however, there was a strong pull towards art song. Poulenc came from a wealthy, upper-middle-class family and was from a young age acquainted with French cultural nobility: Apollinaire and Gide, Claudel and Breton. He was comfortable in the bookshops and soirées of the Left Bank artistic elite and proved himself worthy of this cultural milieu as early as the age of 20 by composing a cycle (Le Bestiaire) to poems by Apollinaire, a poet to whom he would return again and again. Heggie, following initial studies in Paris, has composed almost exclusively for voice, entranced by singers such as Frederica von Stade and the great American poets Amy Lowell and Emily Dickinson.

Heggie formalized his kinship with Poulenc with Friendly Persuasions (2008), in the process underlining the older composer’s membership of the Parisian cultural elite. With words by Gene Scheer and styled as a homage to Poulenc, the songs recreate in miniature four ‘transformative friendships’ in Poulenc’s life. The set is dedicated to Malcolm Martineau; he and John Mark Ainsley gave the world premiere at the Wigmore Hall, London, in 2008. The first of Poulenc’s friends is Wanda Landowska, the pioneering and quite wonderful musical archaeologist and harpsichordist for whom Poulenc wrote his Concert champêtre (1927–28), a buccaneering work that also manages moments of tender intimacy, a single-stopped harpsichord at times pitted against low brass chords without disadvantage. Heggie alludes to the instrument in the song’s accompaniment, which at times rattles along like a keyboard exercise, and to the Concert champêtre itself. Composer and poet perfectly capture the slightly suffocating atmosphere of Landowska’s École de Musique Ancienne in Saint-Leu-la-Forêt outside Paris, as the American harpsichordist Ralph Kirkpatrick discovered in the 1930s (‘She is very nice to me, but she wants to make me simply a part of her own ego, and have complete control over me, a thing which I constantly resist, an exhausting process’). In Heggie’s song the quick-breathed Landowska despairs at Poulenc’s dilatoriness (‘My concerto! Why are you so late? …You live your life as if there’s time to waste’), complaints Poulenc swats away insouciantly; the concerto will be finished on time, he implies.

The other tributees are equally distinguished. There is the great French baritone and teacher Pierre Bernac, who, more than anyone, kept alive the chanson tradition in France in the twentieth century. He sang Poulenc’s scabrous Chansons gaillardes in a 1926 Paris recital, just one year after his debut in the capital and soon after the songs’ completion. Heggie and Scheer celebrate an early manifestation of Poulenc and Bernac’s intense (platonic) relationship and brilliant recital partnership (‘Playing a new setting of Cocteau for my friend Bernac,’ the dandy narrator declares at the outset), which gave rise to 90 melodiés, two-thirds of Poulenc’s entire song output. ‘We created them together,’ Bernac later insisted, and no one doubted him. Then there is a snapshot of Raymonde Linossier, the cultured, intelligent writer and art historian whom the homosexual Poulenc toyed with marrying. It was Linossier who introduced Poulenc to La Maison des Amis des Livres, the famous bookshop-cum-salon on the Rue de l’Odéon, a deed that broadened his taste and education overnight.

Finally there is a portentous, gloomy tribute to the Surrealist poet Paul Éluard, who was traumatized by the memory of the soldiers’ graves he dug in the First World War and inspired by the French resistance movement he joined in the Second. (Poulenc’s exquisite song Bleuet—another setting of Apollinaire—occupies the same grim landscape, the slop and bogs of the front line, the protagonist haunted by those friends and colleagues who had died alongside or near him during the war.) Each song in the collection is scented with the heady perfume of Poulenc’s interwar world, though the musical language—diatonicism spiked with chromaticism and bitonality, and with accompaniments rising to the (admittedly small) challenge of painting Sheer’s abundantly colourful words—is Heggie’s alone.

Poulenc’s first settings of Éluard’s poetry (Cinq Poèmes de Paul Éluard) date from the year before the Christmas 1936 rehearsal re-enacted in Heggie’s song, and were included in Poulenc and Bernac’s first recital together soon after, the ink on the fair copy scarcely dry. (As Scheer depicts, with no small good humour, Poulenc threw his settings of Cocteau’s ‘Plain-chants’ on the fire after the play-through with Bernac, the baritone having made evident his disapproval. Bernac later wrote about this incident, providing Sheer with his scenario.) His imagination stirred, and at precisely the time he was working on the ill-fated Cocteau settings, Poulenc composed nine more songs to Éluard’s poetry; he collected them in early 1937 as Tel jour telle nuit, Éluard’s suggested title. ‘Collecting’ is perhaps too loose a word, for Tel jour telle nuit is a beautifully conceived and shaped cycle, a chain of glorious songs, radiant in their emotional and musical content. It is, without doubt, Poulenc’s greatest vocal work, a throw-back to the great cycles of 100 years earlier: Winterreise, say, or Dichterliebe, each a concentrated essay in transcendence.

The serenity of the opening establishes a mood and pulse that dominate the cycle, though not to the exclusion of passionate outbursts. And there is something deeply sinister about the sparse, bitter world Poulenc creates in the miniature ‘Une roulotte couverte en tuiles’. In the main, though, both voice and accompaniment communicate a sense of courtesy, even awe. Poulenc incorporates the sort of cumulative musical and dramatic impact he would exploit so skilfully almost 20 years later in Carmélites: the wild declamations of ‘Figure de force brûlante et farouche’ and ecstatic climax were intended ‘to make more keenly perceptible the kind of silence that marks the beginning of “Nous avons fait la nuit”,’ as Poulenc observed. This song—the last in the cycle and containing references to the first—emerges as a whisper from the clanging echoes of ‘Figure de force’, a still night-song of enormous poise and power.

As a pupil of Nadia Boulanger in Paris from 1927 to 1932, Lennox Berkeley watched shyly from the sidelines as his glamorous new acquaintances Poulenc and Milhaud, Stravinsky and Honegger, dominated French music with such gleeful ease. With French heritage and fluency in the language, Berkeley always seemed more at home in the French scene than the British, and certainly his early songs show that. He did not possess Poulenc’s easy, golden touch with melody, and he sometimes overworked his ideas, desperate to wrestle them into some sort of shape. Yet from his return to England he was determined to position himself at the heart of a fast-changing music scene. He put behind him the poems of Cocteau and Vildrac that had caught his eye in Paris, and set to work on Housman and Yeats.

In the 1950s he bridled himself to W.H. Auden, who in the 1930s had been even more prominent and political in England than Éluard had been in France. Berkeley’s selection of texts in his Five Poems of W.H. Auden (1958) owed more to his friendship with Benjamin Britten than that with the poet. Britten was first introduced to Auden in 1935, a year before he met Berkeley at the ISCM Festival in Barcelona. Auden’s crusades and style had evolved considerably since the poems in Berkeley’s collection; in choosing verses Britten had set almost as soon as Auden finished them, Berkeley was revisiting his early infatuation with Britten rather than the cooler friendship that replaced it. ‘Carry her over the water’ was a bold choice, for it comes from Auden’s libretto for Britten’s operetta Paul Bunyan, which had failed spectacularly at its premiere in 1941, leaving Britten smarting. It was bold for another reason. As Berkeley’s composer-son Michael would later discover after writing some Hardy songs, Britten rarely responded well to those who set ‘his’ poets.

Heggie, Berkeley and Poulenc would all subscribe to Britten’s dictum that it was vital not to confuse great music with big music: the most profound musical and philosophical ideas can be located in the most intimate of forms, whereas the twentieth century’s tendency towards monumentalism has not always advanced the cause of humanity. Of course it was possible for music to be both. Britten’s grand opera Billy Budd is unquestionably a great work: Kenneth Clark was not exaggerating when, after the premiere, he told E.M. Forster, the opera’s co-librettist, that it was ‘one of the great masterpieces that change human conduct’. Britten would have made no such claims for Fancy, a setting from 1961 that was published three years later alongside versions (both from 1959) of the same text by Kodály and Poulenc; the last illustrates Shakespeare’s words with the most perfect bell-like accompaniment. But no one can deny The Holy Sonnets of John Donne (1945) this mantle: it is a cycle of unremitting bleakness, Britten immersing himself in the darkest, most dystopian corners of human existence and setting in music his impressions.

Donne was another of Auden’s presents in the 1930s to his impressionable, conservative friend. (‘Auden got us to take Donne seriously,’ Britten would later write. ‘One didn’t get much of him at school, or at least we didn’t appreciate him properly there.’) The poems suited Britten’s mood. The death and destruction he saw visited on London after his return from America in 1942 only served to underline his pacifism. Likewise, his pessimism about human nature was only increased during a short recital tour with Yehudi Menuhin during which the two visited the concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen in Lower Saxony in July 1945, a matter of months after British and Canadian soldiers had first arrived there, to discover piles of corpses and the rag-clothed walking dead. On his return—delirious in bed from a post-trip typhoid vaccination—Britten composed the cycle, working feverishly to make sense of Donne’s tortured attempts to reconcile his belief in God with the terror and destruction around him. Britten’s own theistic faith had given way to a belief in the numinous; that way he had no need for Donne’s hard-won reconciliation.

The poems suited the public mood too, but only to an extent. Those present at the premiere, at the Wigmore Hall on 22 November 1945 (Britten’s birthday), would have found painful resonances between the atmosphere and images of the cycle and their own experiences and losses over the previous seven years. A more optimistic mood would soon prevail; but not for Britten, whose music in the following decades became grimmer and sparser, his outlook bleaker. Pears would later tell the film director Tony Palmer that Britten acknowledged ‘that the experience [at Belsen] had coloured everything he had written subsequently’. From the cycle’s opening declamation—‘Oh my blacke Soule! Now thou art summoned/By sicknesse, death’s herald, and champion’—to the final clumping bars of the Purcellian ground bass at the cycle’s end, it is not difficult to see the truth of Pears’s words.

Paul Kildea © 2015

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