Between 1918 and 1960, the late Francis Poulenc wrote just over 140 songs. They won him wide recognition as the composer of the most beautiful songs of his era. Now, 16 years after his death, the entire catalogue of Poulenc songs has been recorded on a five-record set, an honor that has been granted to very few composers living or dead. On the EMI "La voix de son maitre" label, the new discs are numbered 165-162313/85.
Never mind the price of the gold these days, or the current rate of exchange between dollars and frans - beg, borrow, or worse if you must, but order these records from your dealer, for there is no assurance that they will be released domestically. First, however, you may want the good news and the bad news that is, in any such large-scale venture, alas, inevitable.
Right off the bat, let me state it loud and clear: I would not be without these recordings for any reason, either of price or some inadequate performances. I must have these songs, as I must those of Hugo Wolf, and some by Schumann, Schubert, Brahms, Strauss, Liszt and others.Roland Manuel states categorically that Poulenc's cycle, "Tel jour, telle nuit," is worthy of comparison with Schubert's "Die Winterreise" and Schumann's "Dichterliebe." I am in complete agreement. There also are many other Poulence songs that must be place on the same highest level.
As in the recent complete recordings of the songs of Gabriel Faure, Dalton Baldwin is the pianist for the entire Poulenc cycle. For his supremacy in this exacting, subtle world, the French government should award him membership at the highest rank in the Legion of Honor. No composer has been more explicit than Poulenc in describing exactly how the piano is to be played in his songs, for which he says he wrote his best piano music. And he was himself a master pianist.
"The great technical errors that disfigure my piano music to point of rendering if unrecognizable," he wrote, "are: rubato, avarice in the use of the pedal, and too clear articualtion of certain patterns of chords an arpeggion, which need, on the contrary, to be played with veiled sustained tone."
About the pedal, Poulence was to sa even more forcefully: "The use of the pedals is the great secret of my piano music (and the lack of it often its downfall). They will never use enough pedal! Never enough!" And his songs often carry such insistent admonitions such as "Drench with pedeal!"
All this and much more, Baldwin observes, giving the indefinable elements of style, supporting the five singers in the set with a tone and musical manner appropriate to each, and surrounding the entire project with the unmistakable aura that is essential for great Poulenc.
The five singers in the EMI set are Elly Ameling, Nicolai Gedda, William Parker, Michel Senechal and Gerard Souzay. The great glory of the set is Souzay, whose singing has a splendor of vocal color and an unceasing care for the flawless projection of the texts, not only in enunciating the shape and impact of each word but for the beauty of the poetry. The importance of this is obvious from the fact that Poulenc set to music every great French poet of this century, though drawing the largest number of poems from two: Guillaume Apollinaire and Paul Eluard. There are 32 songs from the first and 34 from the second.
In the new recordings, Souzay sings Poulenc's first songs, the cycle "Le bestiaire"; the Chansons gaillardes; Chansons villageoises; Metamorphoses; the three Lorca songs; the grand cycle, "Le travail du peintre," and another 20.
For many years in his distinguished career, Souzay, out of a generous respect for the art of Pierre Bernac, for whom Poulenc wrote some 90 of his songs, kept somewhat aloof from the Poulenc repertoire. However, several earlier recordings - Philips 900-1488 Victor 3018, and Pathe-Marconi EMI C 065 12158 - showed him to be a master of the repertoire quite as incisively as his predecessor. Having more sheer voice than Bernac, Souzay has made some of the greatest of all Poulenc recordings.
It should be said at this point that the new EMI set should have included several examples drawn from the extensive Bernac-Poulenc recorded repertoire, for there remain today a number of the songs in which Bernac remains the matchless interpreter as the composer often predicted he would.
Nothing by Souzay, however, could be improved upon. Indeed, his only competition, which he easily matches, comes from his own earlier recordings.
For the lovely songs Poulenc wrote for soprano Elly Ameling may be the best of all possible choices today. She is lovely in the last songs Poulenc wrote, those in the cycle,"La courte paille," which he created for his favorite soprano, Denise Duval, to sing to her 6-year-old son. Her cool voice and easy style suit these admirably. What Ameling cannot provide is apparent in the cycle, "Finacailles pour rire," where you long for the sensuous sound and manner of Jennie Tourel, as she sings it on Columbia 6565; of Eileen Farrell's "Fleurs," on Columbia 6151; or something of the sound you hear from Regine Crespin on London 26043 as she sings "Hotel."
Taking Bernac as an example, it is clear that a glorious, sumptuous voice as such is not necessary for Poulenc - indeed the owners of some such voices have often flopped notably in his songs. What is required is the rarest gift of interpretation and stylistic awareness, projected through a voice which, after preceptive study and by instinct as well, can achieve what Poulenc must have.
Bernac is still the master interpreter of "Montparnasse," and of the ineffable "C" to the poem of Louis Aragon. And what of the song, "Tu viou le feu duusoir," in the new set, that song of which Poulenc said, "I wonder if in the 'desert island game' this might not be the song I would choose from my songs to take with me?"
Baritone William Parker sings it valiently, showing the results of his study with Bernac. There is still a kind of strain at the top of his voice that is not quite the right strain for those phrases. Parker is better in "Banalites," and Caligrammes," but there is more in the great Eluard cycle "La fraicheur et le feu," than he yet brings out. Souzay, on his Philips record, is supreme in those elusive songs.
Where the new set is a serious disappointment is in Michel Senechal, who is good in "Cocardes," and five songs to Ronsard poems, but a disaster in "C." It is hard to see how his distortion of this famous song was ever approved for this release.
Worst of all in the set is the presence of Nicolai Gedda, with the exception of the eight Polish songs. Gedda, a great artist in a vast repertoire, is hopelessly wrong in Poulenc. He wrecks "Tel jour, telle nuitc to such a point that there is no way to discuss it. He sabotages one of the loveliest and most heart-wrenching of all songs, "Bleuet," and perhaps even worse, "Montparnasse," that song on which Poulenc, usually a quick worker, spent four years. He is appalling!
Where Gedda is excellent is in the eight Polish songs, which, in 1934, Poulenc harmonized and arranged for piano. In style, language and performance, Gedda is ideal. He should have sung nothing else in the set.
Out of a total of 150 songs, around 118 or so are acceptable or better, some superb. For the splendors of this unique set, appropriately honoring the composer of some of the most beautiful songs ever written, you can overlook the other 30. For Souzay and Baldwin, no praise is too high.
The new set is accompanied by complete texts in French and English, and with priceless essays by Bernac and Baldwin. CAPTION: Picture, Pierre Bernac, left, and Francis Poulenc in the 1930s. From "Francis Poulenc" by Pierre Bernac; W.W. Norton, publisher