Poulenc: Tel jour telle nuit; Trois poèmes de Louise de Vilmorin; Fiançailles pour rire; Airs chantés; La courte paille

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COMPOSERS: Poulenc
LABELS: Arte Verum
ALBUM TITLE: Poulenc
WORKS: Tel jour telle nuit; Trois poèmes de Louise de Vilmorin; Fiançailles pour rire; Airs chantés; La courte paille
PERFORMER: Barbara Hendricks (soprano), Love Derwinger (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: ARV 004

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Barbara Hendricks has made some marvellous recordings in her time. Unfortunately this is not one of them. Singing French song requires special understanding and special gifts. Especially with Poulenc’s settings of the less straightforward poets, you frequently have to understand not only the surface of the verbal text, but the subterranean meaning or meanings, and then find ways of bringing these out in the musical line. Poulenc sometimes spent years trying to find the right music for a single phrase, and then further years working out how to piece the phrases together. If singers can’t be expected to devote quite that amount of time, at the very least they must engage with the words and savour them. Videos of Bernac’s masterclasses bring home the variety they contain for those who search. Here, though, there is little light or shade, consonants are under-projected, vowels devoid of expressive colouring. In ‘Mon cadavre est doux’, for instance, the final syllable of the phrase ‘un gant de peau glacée’ surely calls for a change of tone to support the dissonant A sharp. Frankly, the results overall are dull. Also, in the last of the Airs chantés, Hendricks fails to deliver the required fast roulades (compare Rita Streich in the EMI box). Derwinger’s accompaniments are musical, if rather politely pedalled at times. Any serious collector, though, must start with the EMI box: not everything is beautiful (one or two of the French sopranos can be shrill), but an engagement with the poetry’s undercurrents carries all before it. Roger Nichols