Poulenc: Mélodies & chansons (complete)

COMPOSERS: Poulenc
LABELS: EMI Poulenc Edition
WORKS: Mélodies & chansons (complete)
PERFORMER: Various singers, accompanists & ensembles
CATALOGUE NO: CMS 5 66849 2 ADD/DDD mono/stereo Reissue (1945-93)
Followers of French song know Poulenc as one of the greats – evidently the genre’s final peak. Two fine centenary collections present the songs through the voices of two generations. EMI’s is more ‘complete’ by three mélodies, including one of the Miroirs brûlants. Beyond those, it adds settings for a cappella groups and items with instrumental ensembles such as Poulenc’s bizarre error of youth, Rapsodie nègre. Several times it prefers orchestral or ensemble versions – a colourful asset, indispensable in Cocardes with their cornet and trombone – while Decca keeps Rogé’s sensitive, sensuous piano throughout.

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Decca offers consistency and contemporaneity. Four idiomatic singers take everything except for the set of Polish arrangements, done elegantly by Kryger. The set encloses a new two-disc men’s box (Decca 460 326-2), a single CD with Lott, and the much-praised first volume with Dubosc and Cachemaille. Featuring Lott’s polish, humour and spirit, and Le Roux’s eloquence and varied colour alternating with the fuller-toned Cachemaille, the new issues are on a par.

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Yet EMI has a galaxy of names from the second half of the century and young newcomers to carry on the tradition. Souzay, Benoit, Mesplé, Van Dam: these voices have a further dimension of character and a sense of continuity with the doyen, Pierre Bernac, whose Forties recordings with Poulenc as accompanist are represented and stay fresh and immediate. Unfairly, almost every time Decca’s singers raise their game, they are trumped. Lott’s ‘C’, beautiful and passionate, has to live alongside Bernac’s, recorded in the immediate aftermath of war when the song was two years old, and quite overwhelming. The set has its oddballs, but it radiates a sense of history and is scrupulously remastered and presented.