, April 2011
This new disc of French “mélodies” embraces some rarely heard repertoire, including two world premieres. “Mélodie” is the term used to define French Art Songs from the mid-nineteenth century to the present as “lieder” describes the German equivalent. Evoking the heady days of the early twenties when excitement surrounded circuses, fairs, music hall, cabaret, the follies, and parades, these are charmingly presented songs from some of the most influential composers of the period. Their innovations put French music at the forefront in the twentieth century, even though the French themselves were seemingly more lukewarm than music-lovers in other countries.
The excellent liner-notes are by Joanne Barnes, one of the translators. They explain the historical background to these songs. Barnes shows that the songs are a musical expression of the self-confidence felt during ‘la Belle Époque’ (1890–1917). It was at this time that some of the world’s major inventions came about: radio receivers, manned aeroplanes, talking pictures, as well as the sale of the first Model T Ford. However, in the same period came the First World War. After this many couldn’t bring themselves to be favourably disposed towards music with such apparently frivolous musical and poetic content. However, this music was a conscious attempt to break away from the impressionist movement in music where composers such as Debussy “painted” with notes, and from the likes of Wagner whose operas were considered overbearing. This movement wanted instead, to dispense with the contemplative and reflect life as they saw and experienced it. In short they wanted to be active participants in depicting life in all its manifestations. Their aim was to distance themselves from “heavy-handed seriousness and write music that was witty, concise, and derived from popular culture”, as the liner-notes so aptly put it. At the centre of this movement was the inspiration of Erik Satie (1866–1925). His ‘revolutionary’ treatment of music is reflected especially in his piano pieces with their spare, economic writing. They are admired for their ravishing simplicity, and known for their often bizarre titles, such as “War-song of the King of beans” or “Three really flabby preludes”, written for a dog … and far from flabby. That said, the main composers involved with the movement were drawn from “Les Six”, a group which comprised Georges Auric, Louis Durey (1888–1979), Arthur Honegger (1892–1955), Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc and Germaine Tailleferre (1892–1983).
Auric, Milhaud and Poulenc are represented on this disc. The first tracks here are, however, by Henri Sauguet who is much less well-known than the others. A composer of over twenty ballets, including some for Diaghilev, operas, chamber works and four symphonies, Sauguet enthusiastically embraced Satie’s style; it was Satie who introduced him to the great Russian ballet impresario. He chose five of his childhood friend Adrien Copperie’s collection of 19 poems entitled Cirque to set to music and these open the disc. Dating from 1927 the songs describe various aspects of the circus: Classical Dressage School, Little Woman Rider, Bareback Rider, Ariel Gymnast and Starry Clown. I enjoyed these songs which were a perfect opener. They are miniatures in the true sense of the word, lasting between a mere 00:32 seconds to 1:39 but are so evocative of the subjects: riding, aerial gymnastics and the clown. You can hear the gymnast swinging in track 4 as Céline Ricci’s voice soars upwards then descends. One can also hear the similarity between these songs and the “café songs” that emerged from the 1920s and which made the careers of people like Maurice Chevalier, Charles Trenet, Jean Gabin, Fernandel, Mistinguet and Edith Piaf. These are followed by three poems by Jean Cocteau by Milhaud from 1920. Also brief, these are perfect encapsulations of time and place as France emerged from the catastrophic horrors of the First World War. There is a wistful sadness in Fête de Bordeaux (track 7) though for me it was difficult to find the meaning in the words but you can enjoy them nonetheless. Then a salute to Satie himself with a solo piano work Rag-time Parade. There is an overall 1920s sound about all the songs. Tracks 10–13 are from the pen of Poulenc and are typical of his style: so typically French. I adore Bonne d’Enfant (track 11) which is such fun and makes play with a wonderfully catchy tune. Again trying to fathom the meaning of the words is difficult but then Cocteau was known for his avant-garde treatment of language. I’m afraid I still haven’t caught up! There follows a piano piece by Milhaud from his surrealist ballet Le Boeuf sur le Toit. It was inspired by the tango and by a visit to Brazil and is immediately recognisable. We then have eight of Cocteau’s poems set by Auric in 1920, opening with Hommage à Eric Satie. This is further proof of his over-arching influence on his young contemporaries. In fact the very last line of Cocteau’s poem uses a phrase Satie used as a title for one of his piano pieces “un morceau en forme de poire”, except that his pieces are entitled “Trois morceaux…”. It is amusing to follow the songs with the words (in both French and English) all of which form part of the notes. They are so delightfully surreal but the music is fittingly spiky. It would be hard to imagine anything that could match the words so appropriately. This can be said of every example on the disc and only a French composer could have done the poems justice. Auric, interestingly, became a composer of music for several successful British Ealing comedies of the 1950s, including my favourite “Hue and Cry”. He seemed to be able to get inside the British psyche just as easily as he could the French. “The Titfield Thunderbolt”, “The Lavender Hill Mob” and “Passport to Pimlico” were other films for which he wrote the music. Six Chansons de Théâtre by Milhaud from 1954 are still faithful to the style of the 1920s. They comprise two poems each from the pens of Georges Pitoëf, Jules Supervielle and Henri-René Lenormand, and are among my favourites on the disc. There is something delightfully childlike in these songs, for example track 24: Un petit pas, deux petits pas (A small step, two small steps) is straightforward in its musical treatment, without the frequently heard spiky rhythms of the majority of works on the disc. The same goes for track 26: Chacun son tour, les animauux (Each One His Turn, Animals) as the singer dispenses remedies for the ills of various animals in a down to earth, matter of fact way. La Voyante (The Fortune Teller)is another cycle from Sauguet dating from 1932. These are, again, delightful, and children would immediately pick up the musical reference to “Twinkle, twinkle, little star” in Astrologie (track 30). The final Sauguet work is a world premiere, so the booklet says, as is the very first. It sums up the “circus” aspect of the disc as Le chemin des forains translates as “The way to the fair” and contains lines such as “They pierced the night in a flash of silver glitter. They will kill boredom for one night in people’s heads. To dance on a wire, walking on hands, they will do tricks to break the back. Fairground”. It was made famous in a version sung by Edith Piaf and suited her voice perfectly. As a comparison I’m sure Céline Ricci will not mind if I say that Piaf’s voice is more suited to such a song as it has an earthier, rougher edge that fits the words like a glove. But that does not detract from Ricci’s version which has a charm of its own. Those who’ve never heard Piaf’s version will be perfectly happy and, in any case I’m speaking only of this song—I don’t imagine that Piaf would have been so convincing in the other songs which require a voice that can convey whimsy; Ricci is ideal for that. However, with Piaf’s version in mind I’m not sure how this can be said to be a world premiere unless it means the version for voice and piano rather than voice and orchestra. In any event it is a fabulous tune and makes a great song with which to close a super disc.
Céline Ricci, born of Italian and French parents is an up-and-coming opera star who was selected by none other than William Christie, founder/conductor of Les Arts Florissants for his first elite academy Les Jardin des Voix. She has several CDs to her name, though this is her first solo album. She has graced the opera stage in several operas by Handel as well as those by Purcell, Charpentier, Vivaldi, Rameau and Alessandro Scarlatti, amongst others. For this disc she uses a different style of singing that more befits songs of this nature and does the songs credit, making them immediately accessible to what is hoped will be a wide audience. She is keenly and sympathetically accompanied by Daniel Lockert in a programme of delightful discoveries and the disc deserves to do well.