Spring hailed in impressive exhibition of 20th century French choral songs by Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir

Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir conducted by Karen Grylls
Salut Printemps!
Accompanied by Rachel  Fuller with Catrin Johnsson, vocal consultant

French music for Springtime: Debussy, Mark Sirett, Lili Boulanger, Jean Adsil, Poulenc and Donald Patriquin

Cathedral of the Sacred Heart

Saturday 21 October,  7:30 pm

Here was a concert to which many of us attended, blind. The publicity had mentioned Debussy and Poulenc (and these were indeed the only well-known composers) and “romantic chansons and a quirky song-cycle”. It was dedicated totally to songs in French, mostly by French composers.

I guess the programme was assembled through the wonderful resources of Google and Wikipedia by searching ‘vocal music for Springtime’; though perhaps I underestimate Karen Grylls’ encyclopaedic familiarity with the entire choral repertoire through all ages and all countries! .

Instead of printing the words and their English translations in the programme leaflet, the person I took to be the choir’s ‘Vocal Consultant’, Catrin Johnsson, recited translations in an admirably clear and well-articulated voice from the front, before each song. My shorthand was not up to noting the salient points, and so, here and there, I have also had recourse to the Internet.

On the whole, French choral music from the late 19th to mid-20th century is not very familiar, and so, the only music that was at all familiar to me were the pieces by Poulenc. Nor was all the music by French composers: Sirett is Anglo-Canadian and Donald Patriquin, from Quebec. Jean Absil was francophone Belgian.

Debussy’s Salut printemps
It began with the eponymous piece by the 20-year-old Debussy, a setting of a poem by Anatole de Ségour. He may have been a rather obscure poet, but this poem was also set by other composers, suggesting that he was not unknown. Almost everything Debussy wrote in his early years was vocal, songs, and this looks like his first choral work, for female voices with piano accompaniment. It was certainly a charming evocation of Spring – light in spirit, and with a sympathetic piano accompaniment that at times was a little too prominent in the cathedral’s hard acoustic. The unnamed soloist made a particularly lovely contribution.

Mark Sirett turns out to be a Canadian, though not Québéquois, who’s got a high profile as composer and conductor in Canada. He was born in Kingston, Ontario in 1952, educated in Iowa, but returned to work and teach in Alberta and Ontario.

He wrote Ce beau printemps, a bright, optimistic, a cappella piece based on a poem by the great 16th century poet Pierre Ronsard. It was a predictable song for mixed choir celebrating love in the Springtime; somewhat more thoughtful and less full of delight that one might have expected; just rather lovely.

A group of Trois chansons by Debussy followed. The Old French (Dieu! qu’il la fait bon regarder!; Quand j’ay ouy le tabourin; Yver, vous n’estes qu’un villain) gave them away as Renaissance poems, by Charles d’Orléans. Again, an unaccompanied group, and another solo female contribution was very attractive; she sang the words while the choir performed wordlessly. Markedly wintery sounds emerged during the third song denouncing Winter (‘Yver’ – Hiver).

Lil Boulanger used to be referred to as Nadia’s (the remarkable teacher of numerous famous 20th century composers) less-known sister; but it was Lili who was the gifted composer and her fine music has gained a firm foothold in recent years. Her three songs: Hymn au soleil, Sirènes, and Soir sur la plaine, settings of different poets, were most imaginative, and to me, among the most colourful and delightful of the concert. The first and third were for mixed choir while the men retreated for the particularly gorgeous Sirènes. (the poet, Grandmougin). The last, Soir sur la plaine, by the noted symbolist poet Albert Samain (c.f. Verlaine, Mallarmé, Rimbaud), was an impressive, minor theatrical piece, with exchanges between male and female soloists, and the body of the choir, splendidly performed.

Le bestiaire was a group of songs, no doubt those referred to in the promotional stuff, as ‘a quirky song cycle’. It was a minor zoological foray, the little poems by Apollinaire, dating from 1911, set for unaccompanied mixed choir by Belgian composer Jean Absil in 1944. That was a long time after Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals, which might have remained lurking in the background, perhaps nourished by Erik Satie in the meantime. Would serve as useful revision for your French zoological vocabulary. They were sung in the true spirit of the words as well as Absil’s settings which were both clever and droll.

Two groups of songs by Poulenc came next, not in the least the same spirit as the Absil songs; Nos 2 and 3 of his Quatre petites prières de saint François d’Assise. They took us to the heart of Poulenc’s singular religious awakening in the 1930s, though they were composed in the 1940s. ‘Tout puissant’ and ‘Seigneur, je vous en prie’ were settings for a cappella male voices, and Poulenc’s marked individuality was immediate, melodically confined to a rather limited range of notes.

The same composer’s Les Petites Voix is a set of five songs from 1936 for unaccompanied women’s voices; they sang three: La petite fille sage, Le chien perdu and Le hérisson (hedgehog). The droll verses were theatrically narrated, lines clear, amusing and well balanced, and as with everything in the concert, pitched with a keen ear to the acoustic character of the church (as usual with Karen Grylls).

Finally, Donald Patriquin, a Québéquois, though his biography (McGill and University of Toronto) and list of compositions are evenly balanced bilingually. The choir sang J’entend le moulin, amusing, with dancing, dotted rhythms, prancing up and down, sexual differentiation between men and women singers. Fast, energetic, hypnotic in its incessant rhythms and melodic phrases. It made a fine finish to a highly impressive concert.


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