Tuesday 1 June 2021

What they did next: music from L'Album des Six alongside song cycles written after the six composers went their separate ways

Les Six - Auric, Durey, Honegger, Milhaud, Poulenc, Tailleferre; Franziska Heinzen, Benjamin Mead; Solo Musica

Les Six
- Auric, Durey, Honegger, Milhaud, Poulenc, Tailleferre; Franziska Heinzen, Benjamin Mead; Solo Musica

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 28 May 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A soprano and piano duo look at the composers of Les Six through the mirror of what each got up to later

The grouping of composers known as Les Six was loose at best, five men and one woman who were roughly of an age and who knew each other and who, in 1920 in Paris, shared something of the era's Avant Garde. Darius Milhaud would later maintain that the grouping of the six was entirely arbitrary, but both Eric Satie and Jean Cocteau seem to have been godfathers, with the amazing melange of the arts, visual, aural and more, which characterised 1920s Paris.

All six composers, Georges Auric (1899–1983), Louis Durey (1888–1979), Arthur Honegger (1892–1955), Darius Milhaud (1892–1974), Francis Poulenc (1899–1963), and Germaine Tailleferre (1892–1983), only actually collaborated on one project, a group of piano pieces known as L'Album des Six in 1920. After that there would be other projects involving subgroupings, but each would rather go their own way. On this disc entitled Les Six on Solo Musica from The Duo (Franziska Heinzen, soprano and Benjamin Mead, piano) the six piano solos from L'Album des Six are paired with songs by the composers from later in their careers, and we also hear a group of piano pieces by Eric Satie from 1920, the year the album was published.

The result is an intriguing insight into the world of Les Six and the different attitudes of the composers. Darius Milhaud, writing in 1967, would describe their compositional approaches thus, "Auric and Poulenc followed ideas of Cocteau, Honegger followed German Romanticism, and myself, Mediterranean lyricism!"

We begin with Georges Auric's Prelude from L'Album des Six, perky and very much in a style which we can compare to the better-known piano music of Francis Poulenc, and perhaps also we should consider the influence of Eric Satie. Auric's songs, Trois poems de Léon-Paul Fargue date from 1940 and set verses by the French poet Léon-Paul Fargue (1876-1947). With the three short songs, Auric's style sometimes seem to evoke the music of 20 years earlier, but there is also a neo-classicism to the music with an edge to the harmony, and the final song 'Regrets' has an elegant simplicity.

The five members of Les Six who collaborated on Les Mariés, with Jean Cocteau at the Eiffel Tower (1921): Germaine Tailleferre, Francis Poulenc, Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, Jean Cocteau, Georges Auric (left to right)
The five members of Les Six who collaborated on Les Mariés, with Jean Cocteau at the Eiffel Tower (1921)
Germaine Tailleferre, Francis Poulenc, Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, Jean Cocteau, Georges Auric (left to right), Louis Durey is absent

Next comes Louis Durey's Romance sans paroles from the album, again rather perky but with quite a density of notes on the page. Durey's 1932 song cycle Vergers sets seven poems by Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) - in the last years of his life Rilke wrote 100s of poems in French which are still not well known. Durey's songs are all short, often austerely expessive with a feeling of free arioso about them where the text takes prominence. Neoclassicism is in the air, with some striking textures and hardly a whiff of Les Six at all.

Arthur Honegger's Sarabande from the album is charming, evoking very much the world of the six in 1920. His songs Petit cours de morale from 1941 set five poems by playwright Jean Giraudoux (1882-1944). The title translates as A short lecture on morality and each song is named for its heroine, the verse almost aphoristic yet hinting at moral dilemmas. These are all very short, as befits the aphoristic character of the words, yet fascinating and engaging. Honegger intrigues with his combination of characterful piano writing with shapely vocal lines. By turns vigorous and lyrical, I rather enjoyed these songs and only in the first and last do we get a hint of Les Six.

Satie's Elegie was written in memory of Claude Debussy; it inhabits a similar world to the music of his protégés but with suitably darker, denser harmonies. His Quatre melodies from 1920 are again full of character, veering between charming waltzes and cleary yet dissonant harmonies, sometimes laughing at tradition and sometimes following it.

Darius Milhaud's Mazurka from the album was actually written in 1914, and it is wonderfully vivid. This is followed by his Trois chansons de Jean Cocteau from 1920 which are actually dedicated to Satie. The three songs are the merest vignettes of contemporary life, yet Milhaud makes them vivid and engaging with intriguing harmonies which demonstrate Milhaud's sense of musical independence.

Francis Poulenc's Valse in C from the album is full of energy and vivid rhythms. Then comes Miroirs brulants, two settings from 1938 of poems Paul Eluard (1895-1952) which Poulenc came across accidentally. 'Tu vais le feu du soir' is slow and striking, almost neoclassical, and Poulenc would say he took elements from this song for his 1953 opera Carmelites, whilst 'Je nommerai ton front' is vivid, edgy and fast, a torrent of angry words about an ex-lover.

Finally we reache Germaine Tailleferre. Her album contrbution, Pastorale: Enjoue is full of strikingly busy yet delicate textures. Her Six chansons francaises date from 1929 and were her first songs, setting a variety of older poets, 15th to 18th century. These songs, by turns fast, vigorous and slowly lyrical have an astringent edge to the harmony and a confident, striking voice. It is not hard to detect Tailleferre's own voice in the songs, a woman in the man's world of music, a wife whose husband tried to shoot her when he learned she was pregnant, causing her to miscarry. 

This is a striking disc which gives us a chance to look at the music of Les Six in a variety of different lights. Heinzen and Mead bring out the real character of each short item (37 tracks lasting a whisker under 50 minutes), and the imaginative structure of the disc means that we never feel that this is a random assemblage of little morsels, but develops into a larger picture.

Georges Auric (1899–1983) - Prélude (1919)
Georges Auric - Trois poèmes de Léon-Paul Fargue (1940)
Louis Durey (1888–1979) - Romance sans paroles op. 21 (1920)
Louis Durey - Vergers op. 42 (1932)
Arthur Honegger (1892–1955) - Sarabande H 26 (1920)
Arthur Honegger - Petit cours de morale H 148 (1941)
Erik Satie (1866–1925) - Premier Menuet (1920)
Erik Satie - Quatres mélodies (1920)
Darius Milhaud (1892–1974) - Mazurka (1914)
Darius Milhaud - Trois chansons de Jean Cocteau (1920)
Francis Poulenc (1899–1963) - Valse in C (1919)
Francis Poulenc - Miroirs brûlants Paul Éluard (1938)
Germaine Tailleferre (1892–1983) - Pastorale. Enjoué (1919)
Germaine Tailleferre - Six chansons françaises (1929)
Franziska Heinzen (soprano)
Benjamin Mead (piano)
Recorded at SRF Studio, Zürich | Date: July 2020
SOLO MUSICA SM351 1CD [49:44]

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