Sunday 13 August 2023

Tales of Love and Enchantment: exploring the songs of Isabelle Aboulker

Isabelle Aboulker
Isabelle Aboulker
Tales of Love and Enchantment: The songs of Isabelle Aboulker; Julia Kogan, Nigel Foster; London Song Festival at Hinde Street Methodist Church

Virtually unknown in the UK, French contemporary composer Isabelle Albouker's delightful songs explored with a strong focus on her settings of La Fontaine's fables.

Nigel Foster's London Song Festival has begun a short Summer season which explores the music of three somewhat less-performed song composers with Max Reger and Granville Bantock both featuring. The opening concert of the season, on Friday 11 August 2023, featured the songs of contemporary French composer Isabelle Aboulker performed by soprano Julia Kogan with Nigel Foster at the piano.

Isabelle Aboulker (born 1938) is the daughter of Algerian-born film director and writer Marcel Aboulker and her maternal grandfather was the composer Henry Février (a pupil of Massenet, Fauré and Messager, the composer of operas and operettas, and father of the pianist Jacques Février). Aboulker studied with Maurice Duruflé at the Paris Conservatoire, and returned there as an accompanist and later vocal coach. Since 1981, her compositional output has focused on song and opera, and she has also made a name for herself as a composer of works for children or works in which children can participate. 

Whilst her output includes two operas based on plays by Eugène Ionesco, an oratorio, L'Homme qui titubait dans la guerre, to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the ending of World War I and the comic opera Monsieur de Balzac fait son théâtre, the fables of La Fontaine seem to have remained a constant source of inspiration including La Fables Enchantées, settings of 15 of La Fontaine's fables for soloists and instrumental ensemble.

Soprano Julia Kogan has a personal connection to the composer, over 20 years ago she met Isabelle Aboulker because the two were both Summering in the same Pyrenean village. Kogan subsequently studied Aboulker's songs with the composer and has recorded a disc of Aboulker's songs with the composer at the piano. [Aboulker: Melodies from First Hand Records]

For the recital, we heard six of Aboulker's setting of La Fontaine threaded throughout the programme. All were sung in English translations by the poet Timothy Adès (who happens to be the father of composer, Thomas Adès). Alongside these were settings of Hans Christian Anderson, extracts from a book on etiquette by La Comtesse de Gencé (pseudonym of Marie Louise Blondeau 1872-1965), and the poets Maurice Donnay (1859-1945), Eugène Guillevic (1907-1997), Charles Cros (1842-1888), and Germain Nouveau (1851-1920).

La Fontaine's fables are on the long side for song and in each, there was a sense of Aboulker creating a mini-opera, relishing the opportunities for colour and character in the narrative. In musical style, one thought of Poulenc and of Ravel's Histoires naturelles, and Aboulker often put a quite chattery, naturalistic vocal-line alongside a more structured piano part. When she does write melodies, they are often in the piano as a comment on the voice. Many of the settings of the fables were designed to appeal to children but the are large-scale complex pieces that have plenty in them for adults, especially as several of La Fontaine's fables have references to his own time, so that The Lion in Old Age was a clear reference to King Louis XIV in old age. There was one further fable-like song, The Princess and the Pea, with Aboulker's own words based on Hans Christian Anderson.

Kogan sang the songs with great relish and a lovely sense of telling the stories, whilst she and Foster brought out all the colours and character that Aboulker used to heighten to narrative. You could sense Kogan's sheer delight in Aboulker's varied approach to text and story. In these mini-operas, the interest was very much in the way Aboulker approach character and characterisation in music.

The decision to sing the songs in English without any printed text was a brave one. Kogan clearly relished the words and worked them into the songs' music, but the fables are rather complex tales and whilst we could apprehend many of the words, it was sometimes difficult to catch the drift of the tales (I never did work out quite what the plot of The Cat Transformed into a Woman was) and given that both songs and tales were largely unfamiliar, it might have been sensible to give the audience rather more help.

Lettre d'amour, setting a poem by Maurice Donnay sung in Timothy Adès' translation, was almost a cabaret chanson featuring a delightful waltz in the piano. L'inconstante, setting a rather misogynistic poem by Charles Cros (sung in the original French) also had a cabaret feel combining a lively narrative with colourful piano, but I am not sure whether the composer's evident satirical intention came across.

We heard two settings of the poet Eugène Guillevic from a 1996 cycle Hommage a Guillevic originally written for chorus and piano. Tenir (sung in French) was rather serious, one of Aboulker's familiar wordy vocal lines unfolding over throbbing piano, whilst The Woman who Feared Thunder was vividly dramatic, full of colour and character but the English words just did not carry sufficiently to bring over the poem's point, alas.

Germain Nouveau's I am off to the Market Day (sung in English) might at first have seemed to promise another fable, and perhaps it is but Nouveau's poem is remarkably bitter (he is off to sell is beloved's different physical attributes in revenge). The result is a remarkably bitter, complex and disturbing song, and one where Aboulker really stretched the tonal harmony in interesting different ways.

Aboulker's Savoire Vivre et usages Mondains consists of three settings of extracts from a book of etiquette written in 1894 by La Comtesse de Gencé (pseudonym of Marie Louise Blondeau). I don't think the original was intended to be satire, but Aboulker has described the authorial voice here as 'a monster' and her three settings certainly brought out the satirical intent. The first, On the subject of White Socks was an engaging and delightfully unlikely tango, the second Offering one's Arm unfolded over a throbbing piano, whilst the third ...and about gloves was an engaging waltz. Kogan sang with relish and Foster entered into the character with a will, there was lots to enjoy but again the diction needed to be crisper and more direct if we were to get the satirical point, otherwise we simply sat back and enjoyed the music.

Each half ended with a vocalise! Escale a Rio was written for a school named for the composer Darius Milhaud. Aboulker found the other commissions rather too serious and so decided on something fun, writing a vocalise in the style of a samba, imagining Milhaud in Brazil (where he was secretary to poet Paul Claudel who was the French ambassador to Brazil). A delightful piece. The second piece, which ended the recital was Je t'aime a song which combined vocalise with words, originally written for a 1993 opera. It was delightfully over the top, satirising operatic conventions and Kogan sang it with pinpoint accuracy, though I wondered whether the joke went on too long.

I was pleased to make the acquaintance of Isabelle Aboulker's engaging music. Perhaps the recital focussed a bit too much on the fables of La Fontaine, and I was sufficiently intrigued by Aboulker's settings of other poets to want to explore more.  

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