This past Tuesday Hyperion released a four-CD box of the complete songs of Francis Poulenc in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the composer’s death this past January 30. The recording project was the brainchild of pianist Graham Johnson, whose knowledge of the French art song repertoire is, to say the least, prodigious. That authority is warranted by the 176-page booklet that accompanies the CDs themselves. Thus, while there have been past recordings covering all of Poulenc’s songs, this one stands out with a level of scholarship as high as that of the performance values summoned by Johnson and the fifteen vocalists he accompanies, as well as Pierre Bernac, who serves as narrator for L’histoire de Babar, le petit elephant (the story of Babar, the little elephant) in a recording made in 1977. (The entire collection is dedicated in memory of Bernac, who died in 1979.)
From an organizational point of view, what makes this new collection both fascinating and unique is Johnson’s decision not to organize the songs strictly chronologically. Instead, each disc is arranged to present a particular journey through Poulenc’s career, thus exploring the variety of different activities and worldviews that occupied him over the course of his life. Thus, each disc is given its own thematic title:
- Métamorphoses (metamorphoses)
- Main dominée part le cœur (hand dominated by heart)
Note the English title for the final CD. This is the title of very last track of the entire set, which presents the only setting of a text in the English language. The words come from William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, beginning with the line:
Tell me where is Fancy bred,
Or in the heart, or in the head?
The length of the accompanying booklet then allows Johnson the space in which to outline and discuss each of those individual journeys, inserting the texts and translations into the text at appropriate locations for the sake of both illustrating and explicating the biographical narrative of each of those journeys.
Like Benjamin Britten, Poulenc had a great love of literature; and the texts he selected reveal the full scope of his appreciation for the power of words. As “Fancy” demonstrates, those words did not necessarily have to be in French; and the final CD also includes eight songs he composed in 1934 on Polish texts. Still, what most pervades this collection is an acute understanding of the many voices of French literature, particularly those realized through texts written during Poulenc’s lifetime.
When the texts matter this much, so also must the clarity of delivery. This is evident in the performances by all of the singers Johnson selected for this project. Of course Johnson also deserves a healthy share of the credit for how he worked with each of those vocalists, both in preparing the performances and then in his impeccable sense of balance during the recordings.
The result then emerges as a perceptive examination of Poulenc as a man, a composer, and a lover of literature. Much of that examination reveals itself in the skillful effort that Johnson put into the accompanying booklet. However, all of the performances are so engaging that, in spite of its comprehensiveness, this project is anything but a merely academic exercise.