Renaissance of the song recital heralded with Poulenc and ‘Songbook’ at St Andrew’s

Songbook: A breath of Poulenc

Songs and woodwind sonatas by Francis Poulenc

Barbara Graham (soprano), Rebecca Steel (flute), Deborah Rawson (clarinet, Bruce Greenfield (piano)

Adam Concert Room, New Zealand School of Music

Sunday 14 August 2016, 2pm

This time, pianist Catherine Norton, the promoter of Songbook, took a rest from the piano.  Seasoned accompanist extraordinaire Bruce Greenfield did the honours.

The concert was but an hour long, and concentrated on one composer instead of the many composers featured in April’s concert.  Despite the promoter’s title for the group, this concert featured woodwind music, beloved of a number of French composers, as well as song.  With top musicians performing, it was a pity the audience numbered not more than around 30.

A breath of fresh air Poulenc was (along with a number of his contemporaries), leaving behind the sometimes ponderous solemnity of Saint-Saëns and Franck.

Bruce Greenfield arranged the recital and its order, and included in the printed programme notes from Poulenc’s diary that gave some of his philosophy regarding his songs.  Applause was requested to be given only before the short break in the middle of the programme, and at the end; a great idea for allowing continuity of the music.

The songs were settings of poems by Louise de Vilmorin (1902-1969) and Louis Aragon (1897-1982), poets of Surrealism.  Several were very humorous.  Most of the compositions were written during World War II.  The recital began with ‘Violon’ from Fiançailles pour rire (Betrothals for fun?) by Vilmorin.  Through all her songs, Barbara Graham’s language was clear and beautifully pronounced.  Having words and translations printed for us made the songs so much more than ‘mere’ good singing.  The singing was in character with the words, e.g. ‘On the string of disquiet / to the chords on the hanged strings…’

This was followed by the allegro malinconico first movement of the composer’s Sonata for flute and piano.  I wondered what Poulenc would have thought of the silver flute, with its rather more brittle tone than that of the traditional wooden flute.  Poulenc’s writing for the piano was far from just being accompaniment; he gave much delicious music to the piano.

The next song from the same Vilmorin cycle was ‘Fleurs’.  This was no traditional sonnet in praise of flowers.  I loved the expression translated as ‘Flowers sprouting from the parentheses of  a step’.  I have a few of those.  The more sensitive, benign character of this song suited Barbara Graham’s voice better than did the first song.  The slower tempo allowed the words to be pronounced more fully.

Deborah Rawson now played the first movement, allegro tristamente, from the composer’s Sonata for clarinet and piano.  It was not easy to find anything sad in this allegro.  Some of the delightfully spiky accompaniment was in a minor key, but sadness was difficult to detect.

The third song from the cycle, entitled ‘La Dame d’André’, was mellifluous, with quirky touches typical of Poulenc.

The second movement of the familiar flute sonata followed, its description ‘cantilena’ very appropriate in this recital.  The pattern or structure of the work is classical, but the components, i.e. melodies, harmonies and rhythms were not at all.  The beauty of Poulenc’s writing here for flute is incomparable.

Another song from Vilmorin’s cycle was entitled ‘Mon cadavre est doux comme un gant (‘My corpse is as soft as a glove’).  Here again, Poulenc’s treatment of the words was wonderful.

The romanza movement from the clarinet sonata came up next.  There is no doubt about the skill of these musicians: they indeed allowed Poulenc to speak with his own breath.  This movement was like a song – I could almost imagine the words – yet Poulence traversed the range of the instrument, with taste and invention.

‘Paganini’ is a song from another of the same poet’s cycles: Metamorphoses.  With a title like that, it was obvious that this was another song about the violin.  However, the juxtaposition of the instrument with seahorse, mermaid and Mary Magdalen was surreal indeed – stream of consciousness stuff.  The setting matched the diversity of  poetic thoughts, with its various musical images.

The flute rejoined the piano in the final movement of the sonata.  The presto giocoso had a similar flighty, headlong character to the preceding song.

The last song from Fiançailles pour rire was titled ‘Il vole’, probably to be translated as ‘Thief’.  The song contained plays on the words from the verb voler, to fly, and voler, to thieve.  Some of this was lost in reading the English translation.  The sentiment of the last line ‘Je veux que mon voleur me vole’ reminded me of ‘Sweet thief’ in Menotti’s opera The Old Maid and the Thief.

The final movement of the clarinet sonata, allegro con fuoco, was indeed furious – a race to an exciting end.  This excitement was carried over into the final song.  Before it, we heard ‘C’ from Deux Poèmes by Louis Aragon (1897-1982).  The poem introduces images of war among its varied figures, beginning ‘J’ai traverse les ponts de Cé’.  The second poem, ‘Fêtes galantes’ was a fast and furious tongue-twister.  I could not read the English translation as fast as Barbara Graham could sing the French words!  The ironic text points to its having been written during the war, e.g. ‘You see [On voit] fops on bicycles/ You see pimps in petticoats/ You see brats with veils/ You see firemen burning their pompoms’.  It made a glorious end to the recital that illuminated the many-sided talent and innovation of Francis Poulenc.

I’ve long wanted, nay, needed lieder (or art song, if you prefer) in Wellington; the Songbook is the answer to that need, although I do not find this venue the most desirable; it is too resonant for loud solo singing or playing, in my view, and detracts from the beauty of the music.  I noticed that at long last the street-lamp-orange fluorescent lights have been replaced by normal-coloured ones.  Maybe this is not recent, but I haven’t noticed it before.  It’s certainly a vast improvement.


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