Sunday 28 November 2021

'A Dangerous Obsession: The Relationship of Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud' at the London Song Festival

Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud
Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud

A Dangerous Obsession: The Relationship of Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud
; Ben Vonberg-Clark, Julien Van Mellaerts, Nigel Foster, David Mildon; London Song Festival at Hinde Street Methodist Church

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 26 November 2021 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★)
The relationship of Verlaine and Rimbaud in their own words, explored in an enthralling programme of settings of their poetry

The relationship between the poets Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud remains one that continues to fascinate and puzzle in its sheer intensity and violence. As poets, both would have an enormous impact on French poetry and both would inspire generations of composers. For the latest concert in pianist Nigel Foster's London Song Festival season at Hinde Street Methodist Church (26 November 2021), A Dangerous Obsession saw tenor Ben Vonberg-Clark, baritone Julien Van Mellaerts, actor David Mildon and Foster exploring Verlaine and Rimbaud's relationship through songs to their poems, with music by Faure, Charpentier, Debussy, Varese, Vierne, Hahn, Hahn, John Alden Carpenter, Poldowski, , Daniel Ruyneman, Hindemith, Jean Rivier, Eisler, Leon Orthel, Maxime Jacob, Britten, and Pascal Zavaro.

The evening was arranged as a narrative, with Ben Vonberg-Clark (who stepped in at the very last possible minute) singing settings of Rimbaud's poetry and Julien Van Mellaerts singing settings of  Verlaine's poetry, plus David Mildon providing linking narrative, the whole having being devised by Nigel Foster. The fascinating thing was that, unlike many similar such programmes, here the songs became part of the narrative as many of the poems were written at the time of the events being narrated or were about the situations being talked about. The result was absorbing and imaginative, almost Verlaine and Rimbaud in their own words. Add to this Foster's imaginative selection of songs and you had an engrossing evening.

The narrative took us from their very first meeting (after the teenage Rimbaud had written to Verlaine) right through to their final, short meeting after Verlaine's release from prison, following which the one would write no more poetry, go travelling and have an important role to play in the colonial exploration of East Africa, whilst the other would discover religion and lose it again, struggle with his sexual nature and decline into alcoholism, but write a remarkable oeuvre of poetry. In between was a remarkable tale of obsession, violence, intensity, struggle, parting, reconciliation and more violence. You felt sorry both for Rimbaud's mother and for Verlaine's wife, both of whom were significantly involved and neither of whom seemed to be able to keep the pair away from each other for long. The violence that characterised the pair's relationship, however, was truly staggering.

London played an important role in their relationship, they lived here twice and seemed fascinated by the place, even attempting to make a living by teaching French (they only got one pupil). Rimbaud's collection Les Illumations was largely written in London, and Graham Robb's biography of the poet suggests that in the title of the collection, 'Illuminations' should be pronounced in the English fashion. Verlaine would write of London that it was 'Prudish, but with every vice on offer', and the two poets found the city exciting.

Throughout the evening, six of the songs from Britten's Les Illuminations were threaded, the poems coming from Rimbaud's collection. What was notable about Ben Vonberg-Clark's performances of these was the way that he brought out the words. Often in Britten's Les Illuminations we are dazzled by the musical inventions, but here Vonberg-Clark seem to take Rimbaud's poetry as his starting point, shaping the music to the poetic phrases and producing a series of engrossing musical moments. Having just a piano as accompaniment also meant that he could take greater risks with tone and colour, often shading his voice to a magical thread. 

The other Rimbaud songs were supremely varied, who knew that both Hindemith and Eisler had set the poet; Eisler's song haunting yet neo-classical, Hindemith's dark and intense. Whilst other composers were new to me, Jean Rivier, Leon Orthel, Daniel Ruyneman and Pascal Zavaro. Yet each brought an interesting quality to Rimbaud's texts. I was rather struck by Rivier's fondness for hypnotic figurations in the piano, and Orthel's song was delightfully quirky. Ruyneman's setting of a passage from Rimbaud's Une Saison en Enfer was full of fascinating harmonies and a somewhat unexpected response to the rather intense words. Zavaro (born 1959) brought us more bang up to date.

It was Julien Van Mellaerts, singing Verlaine settings, who had the task of exploring the more mainstream French song repertoire, beginning inevitably with Faure and Debussy. Van Mellaerts brought out the sense of the sheer seductiveness of Verlaine's text, with a feeling of a lovely passionate and often vibrant line in songs such as two from Faure's Cinq Melodies 'De Venise' or Debussy's Green. But it wasn't all seduction of course, Faure's Prison was controlled yet intense, the poem written whilst Verlaine was indeed in prison for shooting Rimbaud. Songs from Faure's La Bonne Chanson were introduced to highlight the sort of domestic life that Verlaine was missing, and Van Mellaerts often brought a lovely sense of the poet recollecting the memory (or wish) of passion or bliss.

The selection of French song moved fascinatingly into the 20th century, who knew that Louis Vierne could write such fascinating and striking songs, we heard three intense ones from his 1924 cycle Spleens et Detresses. Gustave Charpentier and Reynaldo Hahn were familiar names, of course, yet neither of their songs was known to me and both were in their way rather powerful, whilst Maxime Jacob's setting of text from Verlaine's one-act comedy, Les Uns et les Autres was a complete, light-hearted delight (bringing out the excitement the two poets felt at escaping to be alone together in Brussels). John Alden Carpenter and Poldowski gave us rather rarer repertoire, both rather powerful and serious, and Edgar Varese's dark and haunting Un grand sommeil noir represents the composer's sole surviving work dating from before his move to America. 

We ended with Debussy's Verlaine setting, Colloque Sentimental initially sung by Vonberg-Clark but with Van Mellaerts providing the other half of the dialogue, a haunting and remarkable idea which seemed to reflect the two poets looking back on a time which had gone.

David Mildon linked these, sometimes providing just a few words at other times giving us some vivid descriptions of rather outrageous events. The programme might well have been called Verlaine and Rimbaud in their own words, and Foster's imaginative idea shed considerable light on this intense, violent and passionate relationship. Musically, the evening was wonderfully varied and it helped having two singers who were both finely comfortable and very expressive in the French language. This was truly an evening of sung poetry. At the piano, Foster as ever proved adept at bringing out the requisite colours in a wide variety of different musical styles, as well as making musical sense of the piano arrangement of the string accompaniment to the Britten songs. All in all, a little gem.

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