This the start of what is projected as a five-disc survey of Poulenc’s songs, with the implication that the same set of six singers, with Malcolm Martineau as the ever-immaculate accompanist, will feature throughout. That would explain, for instance, why in this first collection the bass baritone Jonathan Lemalu features on just a single song lasting barely a minute, the soprano Lorna Anderson in just the brief Trois Poèmes de Louise de Vilmorin and one other setting of Ronsard, while soprano Felicity Lott appears like a grand dame for the final cycle here, La Courte Paille. The rest is shared more evenly between the soprano Lisa Milne, tenor Robert Murray and baritone Christopher Maltman. But the rationale for what is in this collection escapes me, and is not explained in the sleeve notes: it’s certainly not chronological, for the songs range from the beginning of Poulenc’s career in the 1920s to near its end in 1960; nor are they grouped by poet, while the layout of the song texts without dates doesn’t help. The best performances, though – Murray in the early Cocteau cycle Cocardes, Maltman in the Chansons Gaillardes, Milne in the Fiançailles pour Rire – are very fine, even if it remains a disc to sample piecemeal rather than as a whole, and doesn’t suggest that the series will supersede EMI’s box set of Poulenc’s songs compiled in the late 1990s.
Hilary Finch & Andrew McGregor, CD Review, BBC Radio 3 (broadcast 26/ 03/11)
Andrew McGregor [AG]“This is the first volume, and I like the way he’s built the sequence that this song (To the Guitar) comes from, because we have Christopher Maltman singing the serenade at the end of the Chanson Gaillardes, then we have that guitar song with Lorna Anderson, and then we have a cameo from the baritone Jonathan Lemalu – his only appearance on this volume singing the epitaph. Those 3 together just work really nicely.”
Hilary Finch [HF] “They are are all Poulenc’s responses to 16th Century verse – it’s a cherishable little point in the recital.”
[AG] “There are so many delicious reminders of how beautifully written these piano parts are – you can hear him relishing them without overdoing them – there’s some simple but absolutely beautiful touches for the pianist.”
[HF] “Lisa Milne performs wonderfully throughout this Poulenc disc. She really sings the French as to the Manoir born”.
[AG] “A nicely balanced and arranged recital for all of these voices, so a promising start to this new Poulenc series.”
[HF] “It certainly is – it is a real recital. You can sit down and just listen to it from start to finish. You don’t really want to pick things out.”
The Observer, April 2011
Six top singers combine on Signum’s first volume of Poulenc songs, which includes settings of poems by Ronsard, Cocteau, Apollinaire and others. Poulenc’s singular mix of whimsy, religiosity and cool wit guarantees plenty of variety. Martineau accompanies with judicious, sharp-eared facility and experience. Maltman delivers the drinking song “Chanson à boire” with duly perverse solemnity; Milne captures the mood of unadorned poignancy in “La dame d’Andre”; Lott remains fresh and idiomatic in “Lune d’avril”. Despite Roger Nichol’s useful essay, the booklet layout is unhelpful, with constant need for cross-reference, but it does at least provide texts.
BBC Music Magazine, June 2011
Once the object of a cult following and otherwise treated with slight disdain, Poulenc’s songs have drawn deepening responses over the years until hailed like a 20th-century Schubert for their range, subtlety and emotional wisdom. The advocacy of Graham Johnson’s Songmakers’ Almanac was a prime mover, and it’s fitting that for a new generation’s project these fine singers should be joined by Songmaker doyenne Felicity Lott, a role model and inspiration if ever there were one. Her vital interpretation of the not-quite-childlike cycle La courte paille has been recorded before, with Pascal Rogé, but treasure like this can bear revisiting.
Christopher Maltman, Lisa Milne and Robert Murray are the main figures in the first volume, which is centred on the quirkily profound poetry of Louise de Vilmorin. Poulenc’s Eluard settings and most of the Apollinaires are still to come. Alongside Malcolm Martineau’s searching piano, the singers find a consistent character: considered, spacious, unaffected but cumulatively intense, to the extent that you may need to pause and catch your breath every so often. The quietly shattering end of the war-ravaged Bleuet, from Murray, is one such occasion.
Milne’s bright, light, eager soprano at the start of Metamorphoses counterweighs the penetration she exercises on Fiancailles pour rire. Anderson finds a deadpan, butter-wouldn’t-melt character for Vilmorin’s more suggestive lines, while Maltman brings good humour and a poker face to the earthy Chansons gaillardes. At first the piano resonates alarmingly, but the acoustic settles and is kind to the voices.
International Record Review, May 2011
Billed as the first volume of a complete Poulenc song series from Signum, this disc employs six singers. This certainly ensures plenty of variety in vocal timbres, but as the recent Dabringhaus und Grimm disc of Poulenc’s Apollinaire settings showed (reviewed in the March issue), there’s a good case for a single- singer recital too. It will be a matter of taste: speaking for myself, there are at least two or three voices too many on this Signum disc, but since most of the singing is excellent and the whole thing is unified by Malcolm Martineau’s superbly characterized piano accompaniments, it seems unreasonable to grumble.
The repertoire ranges from the early miniature song-cycle Cocardes (on texts by Jean Cocteau) composed in 1921, to La courte paille (‘The Short Straw’) on delightfully nonsensical poems by Maurice Careme, written in 1960 near the end of Poulenc’s life for Denise Duval to sing to her son. Here La courte paille is sung by Felicity Lott with a fine sense of style and real understanding but perhaps without the ravishing vocal allure that her voice had earlier in her career. Still, these are songs that benefit greatly from the kind of musical intelligence Lott has in abundance, and tills late cycle makes a fine conclusion to the disc. Oddly, Roger Nichols’s fascinating notes make no mention of this work at all. Cocardes is sung by Robert Murray, who also performs the two 1954 Max Jacob settings published as Parisiana, as well as the glorious Bleuet, on a poem by Apollinaire. The early Chansons gaillardes are eloquently sung by Christopher Maltman, who also gives a beautiful performance of Rosemonde, a setting of Apollinaire dating from the years when Poulenc was composing Dialogues des Carmélites and sharing something of the same musical characteristics within its short duration, written at the same time as Parisiana. Jonathan Lemalu sings just one song – the Epitaphe sur un cexce de Malherbe – and though his sound is resonant, he doesn’t sound entirely at home with the French text.
Á sa guitare and the Trois poemes de Louise de Vilmorin are entrusted to Lorna Anderson, who gives straightforward and very attractive readings, particularly impressive in the last of the Vilmorin settings, ‘Aux officiers de la garde blanche’. Lisa Milne is similarly excellent in the cycle Fiancailles pour rire and the slightly later group of three Metamorphoses (all on Vilmorin poems). She shapes and colours the words especially well and, for the most part, she sings with pin- point accuracy too (the only exception is ‘Mon cadavre est doux comme un gant’, where her voice doesn’t seem quite so cleanly focused). She also gives a moving performance of the Robert Desnos setting Derniere poeme.
Nichols’s notes are a model of informed clarity (apart from the odd omission of La courte paille); the booklet also includes complete texts and translations, as well as biographies of the singers. It would have been helpful for the page with the track listings to include the names of the poets, and not to invent an abbreviated title (‘Fiancailles’). The sound is perhaps a shade on the resonant side for my taste but it never impedes clarity, and the singer-piano balance is always natural. I look forward to the next volumes in this series with interest: there’s certainly scope for new recordings of Poulenc’s songs, and if the multi- singer approach taken here appeals, then I’d certainly encourage collectors to explore this new disc.
Gramophone, July 2011
An ambitious project to record Poulenc’s songs gets of to an accomplished start
The distinguished accompanist Malcolm Martineau, with a team of British singers, here sets out on the massive task of recording all the melodies of Francis Poulenc. All three of the female contributors are first-rate, fresh and bright, attacking cleanly and exploiting a wide tonal and dynamic range. Broadly speaking, Poulenc’s songs divide themselves into two categories, those which reflect the cabaret tradition with chattering, often syncopated rhythms and those which subtly skirt sentimentality in haunting, distinctive lyricism. In Métamorphoses, for example, Lisa Milne brings out a delicate sense of fantasy; similarly, in the settings of poems by Louise de Vilmorin, Lorna Anderson uses a beautiful tonal range and, in "A sa guitare", she shades her tone delicately, fresh and bright in echoing the sound of the instrument.
The climax of the disc comes in the seven songs of the sequence entitled La courte paille ("The Short Straw"), to words by the Belgian poet Maurice Careme. Felicity Lott here exploits her long experience in French operetta in the cabaret- style songs, characterising strongly, while singing with flawless purity up to her highest pianissimo notes in the tenderly lyrical songs. It is good to find this long- favourite singer in such winning voice.
The three male singers in the collection are all good too in the cabaret-style songs, characterising strongly with line attack. Even so, there are reservations over the lyrical songs, where Christopher Maltman, for example, finds it hard to remain steady in long sustained notes, even though his feeling for words is always most sensitive, and he responds in perfect style to the sequence of 17th- century ribald songs, Chansons gaillardes. Then, in the lovely "Rosemonde", to words by Guillaume Apollinaire, his half-tones are a delight.
Robert Murray, with his rather lighter baritone, is very affecting in another of the most moving of all Poulenc songs, “Bleuet”, again to words by Apollinaire, describing what horrors a young soldier will have seen in the trenches of the First World War ("You who have seen such terrible things I What do you think of the men of your childhood?"). It is a song which draws on the composer’s homosexual sympathies, just as he shows a natural feeling for the words of the woman poet Louise de Vilmorin, whom he met for the first time in 1934, coaxing a number of poems from her shortly thereafter with a view to setting them to music.
Less successful is the solitary song given to Jonathan Lemalu, where the sustained line of "Epitaphe sur un texte de Malherbe" is not quite steady enough. But generally this generously filled disc makes an impressive start for a project masterminded by Malcolm Martineau. Whether or not deliberately, the recording balance tends to favour his piano against the voices.