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Track(s) taken from CDA68021/4

L'histoire de Babar, le petit éléphant, FP129

1940/45; pour récitant et piano
author of text

Pierre Bernac (narrator), Graham Johnson (piano)
Recording details: September 1977
Studio 2, BBC Maida Vale, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Elaine Padmore
Release date: October 2013
Total duration: 28 minutes 32 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)
This work with a spoken text by Jean de Brunhoff (1899–1937) is an inspired variation on the piano-accompanied melodrama experiments of such composers as Schumann, Liszt and Richard Strauss. It was sketched at the home of Poulenc’s friend Marthe Bosredon in Brive-la Gaillarde in the summer of 1940. According to Bernac, the children of the house, bored with Poulenc’s piano playing, placed a copy of their favourite book, Babar, on the piano stand, and said ‘Play this instead!’ The composer began to improvise on the story and the children were delighted. The work was composed more or less at the same time as Poulenc’s opéra bouffe on Apollinaire’s Les mamelles de Tirésias. The work, orchestrated in 1962 by Jean Françaix, much to Poulenc’s satisfaction, consists of twenty-two short piano pieces with spoken text in between.

Here is an overview of the twenty-two piano pieces that make up this work:

I: ‘Dans la grande forêt un petit éléphant est né’ … Très modéré, a gentle berceuse in 4/4
II: ‘Babar a grandi’ … Babar playing in the sand. Presto, 2/4
IIIa: ‘Babar se promène’ … Babar on his mother’s back. Très calme, 4/4. The same music introduces the song Le mendiant in the Chansons villageoises
IIIb: A single bar, the sound of a rifle shot
IV: ‘Le chasseur a tué la maman’ … Babar’s mother is killed by a hunter and he flees. Molto agitato, 4/4
V: ‘Au bout de quelques jours’ … Babar reaches the town and meets a kind old lady who gives him her purse. Babar says ‘Merci, Madame’. Très modéré, 3/4
VI: ‘Maintenant Babar habite chez la vieille dame’ … Energetic gymnastics with the old lady. Modéré, 4/4
VII: ‘Tous les jours il se promène en auto’ … Car music with a strident klaxon
VIII: ‘Souvent, à la fenêtre, il rêve en pensant à son enfance’ … Daydreams, and homesick music
IX: The meeting with Arthur and Céleste. The expedition to buy ‘beaux costumes’. Follement gai et tumultueux, 4/4 alla breve
X: ‘Chez le pâtissier’ … Eating cakes to an ingratiating waltz played by a palm-court orchestra. Très gai et animé, 3/8
XI: ‘Pendant ce temps, dans la grande forêt’ … The elephants searching. Lent et pesant, 4/4
XII: ‘Heureusement, en volant sur la ville, un vieux marabout’ … An old bird brings news to the elephants. Presto giocoso, 2/4
XIII: ‘Les mamans d’Arthur et de Céleste’ … Parent elephants scolding their offspring. 2/4
XIV: ‘La vieille dame reste seule’ … The old lady’s loneliness. Lent et mélancolique, 3/4
XV: ‘Ils sont partis’ … The elephants’ car journey home. Presto, 4/4
XVI: ‘Le même jour, hélas, le roi des éléphants’ … The king of the elephants out on a walk, and the eating of a poisoned mushroom. Gracieux et modéré, avec précautions, 2/2
XVII: ‘Babar devint roi’ … Fanfares for a new king. Très animé, 4/4
XVIII: ‘Babar demande aux oiseaux d’aller inviter tous les animaux à ses noces’ … The birds fly out with invitations to Babar’s wedding. Gai et très vif, 2/4
XIX: ‘Les invités commencent à arriver’ … The wedding guests arrive … the dromedary arrives with the new wedding costumes bought for the occasion. Bien calme, 4/4
XX: ‘Mariage de Babar’ … ‘Couronnement de Babar’. Très lent et pompeux, 4/4
XXI: ‘Après le mariage … tout le monde danse’ … The birds mingle with the orchestra … the party ends. À toute allure, 4/4 alla breve, music in the manner of Chansons villageoises
XXII: ‘La nuit est venue’ … The stars come out … King Babar and Queen Céleste dream of their happiness … The End. Le chant très lié et très doux, 4/4; in the style of Sanglots

from notes by Graham Johnson © 2013

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