Tuesday 11 August 2015

Poulenc Songs - Volume 5

The Complete Song of Poulenc, Volume 5
Poulenc Rapsodie Negre, Le Bestiare, Quatre Poemes de Max Jacob, Le Bal Masqe, Quatre Poemes d'Apollinaie, Vocalise; Thomas Allen, Thomas Oliemans, Joshua Ellicott, Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Ann Murray, Sarah Fox
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jun 13 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Youth and experience mixed in this volume of Malcolm Martineau's survey

The fifth volume of Malcolm Martineau's survey of The Complete Songs of Poulenc on Signum Classics takes the same format as before with a mixture of performers combining experience singers with newcomers, so that we have Thomas Allen, Thomas Oliemans, Joshua Ellicott, Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Ann Murray and Sarah Fox performing a programme which includes a number of works with instrumental accompaniment, Rapsodie negre, Le Bestiare, Quatre Poemes de Max Jacob, and Le Bal Masque, plus Quatre Poemes d'Apollinaire and Vocalise. Malcolm Martineau is the pianist throughout and is joined by the Badke Quartet, David Cowley (oboe), Lisa Friend (flute), Julian Bliss (clarinet), Jarek Augustyniak (bassoon), Phil White (trombone), Tamsin Waley-Cohen (violin), Gemma Rosefield (cello), David Corkhill, Andrew Barnard and Gary Lovenest (percussion).

The programme starts at the very beginning with Rapsodie Negre, written in 1917 and the earliest of Poulenc's works to survive. Not a song cycle at all, it consists of five lively movements for flute, clarinet, string quartet and piano to which a baritone (Thomas Oliemans) is added singing nonsense syllables. We get a lovely seductive texture from Prelude, followed by a perky Rondo. Thomas Oliemans join Honoloulou singing the nonsense with big resonant sound. The gentle Pastoral is instruments only, but Oliemans reappears briefly in the vibrant finale.

Written two years later, Le bestiare uses similar forces (baritone, flute, clarinet, bassoon and string quartet) to set a group of poems by Apollinaire. These also exist in piano versions, but the instrumental one is the original and brings a lovely range of colour to the piece. Thomas Allen sings with a the benefit of a life-time's experience. He marshals his vocal resources superbly, and sings often with just a thread of voice, combining line with the right feel of  text predominating. Stylish French combines with a pinpoint accuracy in the emotional tints.

Quatre Poems de Max Jacob from 1921 returns to a similar ensemble (voice, flute oboe, bassoon, trumpet and violin) and shows Poulenc exploring a different, harder-edged harmonic world (he would later claim to have burned the manuscript). There is very much  sense of the voice being amongst the instruments, rather then simply being accompanied by them. The young lyric tenor Joshua Ellicott makes a strong showing. He works hard with the words, but I did rather want more of the feel for the text which Thomas Allen brought. The music in these songs is often bleakly austere, and edgy but does finish in chattier more familiar Poulenc mode.

The Vocalise for voice and piano was written in 1927and is designed to test the singer. Sarah Fox passes with flying colours.

Quatre poems d'Apollinaire were written in 1931 for voice and piano. Poulenc had returned to Apollinaire's poetry in 1931 having not set any songs since Le Bestiare in 1917. In L'Anguille Poulenc stretches the harmonic vocabulary of the genre, whilst Ann Murray gives a masterclass in how the songs should be sung. Like Thomas Allen she uses just a thread of voice, with the text coming through strongly. Carte-postale is quietly bleak, whilst Avant le cinema and 1904 are Poulenc in chatty patter song vein (something which certainly does not phase Ann Murray).

Banalites from 1940 uses two of Apollinaire's poems from his cycle of that name combined with others which Poulenc selected thus giving the cycle a rather intriguing variedness. It is sung here by Catherine Wyn-Rogers accompanied by Malcolm Martineau on the piano. From the opening of Chanson d'Orkenise Catherine Wyn-Rogers combines her robust tones with a lovely sense of wit. The rich quality of her voice beautifully offsets the bleakness of Hotel with its very aphoristic feel.  Fagne de wallonie is in chattier mode. Here and in the next song, Voyage a Paris, Catherine Wyn-Rogers sings with richer, more vibrant tone than might be ideal. I felt in Voyage a Paris though she sings with wit and a fine sense of line, something of the quality of the sung poetry is lost.Finally in Sanglots we have virtually just the richly expressive vocal line on its own.

The cycle finishes with Le bal masque the brilliant cantate profane setting poems by Max Jacob for voice, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, piano, trumpet, percussion, violin and cello. Thomas Allen returns, dazzling with verbal dexterity and matched by the perky wit in Preambule et Aire de bravoure. the calm, instrumental Intermede is followed by the vividly stylish Malvina. Bagatelle is another instrumental movement, full of perky charm. Thomas Allen despatches La dame aveugle with panache followe by the jolly and rather manic finale.

Not every work on this disc is quite an ideal performance but the combination of performers is always intriguing and I would not want to be without the consummate performances from Thomas Allen and Ann Murray. As ever Malcolm Martineau accompanies with wit and grace, whilst the instrumental contributions have the same wit.

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) - Rhapsodie Negre [12.07]
Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) - Le Bestiare [4.43]
Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) - Quatre poemes de Max Jacob [6.54]
Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) - Vocalise [5.09]
Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) - Quatre poemes d'Apollinaire [4.44]
Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) - Banalites [10.20]
Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) - La Bal Masque [17.28]
Thomas Allen (baritone)
Thomas Olliemans (baritone)
Joshua Ellicott (tenor)
Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo-soprano)
Ann Murray (mezzo-soprano)
Sarah Fox (soprano)
Malcolm Martineau (piano)
Badke Quartet
David Cowley (oboe)
Lisa Friend (flute)
Julian Bliss (clarinet)
Jarek Augustyniak (bassoon)
Phil White (trombone)
Tamsin Waley-Cohen (violin)
Gemma Rosefield (cello)
David Corkhill, Andrew Barnard and Gary Lovenest (percussion)
Recorded St Michael and All Angels, Summertown, Oxford, 6-10 September 2010
All Saints Church, East Finchley, London, 1-3 June 2011

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