French Connections

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Benjamin Britten,Francis Poulenc,Jake Heggie,Lennox Berkeley
ALBUM TITLE: French Connections
WORKS: L Berkeley: Five Poems of WH Auden; Britten: The Holy Sonnets of John Donne; Heggie: Friendly Persuasions; Poulenc: Tel jour, telle nuit; Fancy; Bluet
PERFORMER: John Mark Ainsley (tenor), Malcolm Martineau (piano)


Lennox Berkeley’s Auden settings are by some way the most satisfying items on this disc, from the delicate piano tracery of ‘the small birds’ singing, to the objects and animals singing ‘agreeably of love’. The music is full of life and colour, and with historical distance we can appreciate more readily now the individuality both of Berkeley’s harmonies and of his word setting.

Jake Heggie’s musings on Poulenc are also attractive and even moving, though perhaps overlong in one or two places. But the other two main items offer less allure. Tempo is crucial in Poulenc, and Tel jour, telle nuit is not helped here by tempos that, in seven of the eight songs, are slower than Poulenc’s own, in the final ‘Nous avons fait la nuit’, which is marked ‘without dragging’, fatally so: 3:30 against 2:47 minutes. Malcolm Martineau, unlike Poulenc, also spoils the wonderful epilogue with agogic hesitations before climactic notes. I also find John Mark Ainsley’s dynamic bulges on longer notes wearing in quantity. As for Britten’s settings of nine Donne Sonnets, how are they related to ‘French Connections’?  When he wrote them in August 1945, Britten was suffering both mentally and physically after his visit to Belsen concentration camp and it shows. These are grim, even ugly songs, not made easier by Ainsley’s rather ungrateful fortissimos. Not for me.


Roger Nichols