Once the object of a cult following and otherwise treated with slight disdain, Poulenc's songs have drawn deepening responses over the years until hailed like a twentieth-century Schubert for their range, subtlety and emotional wisdom. The advocacy of Graham Johnson's Songmakers' Almanac was a prime mover, and it's fitting that for a new generation's project these fine singers should be joined by Songmaker doyenne Felicity Lott, a role model and inspiration if ever there were one. Her vital interpretation of the not-quite-childlike cycle La courte paille has been recorded before, with Pascal Rogé, but treasure like this can bear revisiting.
Christopher Maltman, Lisa Milne and Robert Murray are the main figures in the first volume, which is centred on the quirkily profound poetry of Louise de Vilmorin. Poulenc's Eluard settings and most of the Apollinaires are still to come. Alongside Malcolm Martineau's searching piano, the singers find a consistent character: considered, spacious, unaffected but cumulatively intense, to the extent that you may need to pause and catch your breath every so often. The quietly shattering end of the war-ravaged Bleuet, from Murray, is one such occasion.
Milne's bright, light, eager soprano at the start of Metamorphoses counterweighs the penetration she exercises on Fiancailles pour rire. Anderson finds a deadpan, butter-wouldn't-melt character for Vilmorin's more suggestive lines, while Maltman brings good humour and a poker face to the earthy Chansons gaillardes. At first the piano resonates alarmingly, but the acoustic settles and is kind to the voices.