Robert Hollingworth introduces I Fagiolini's new album of French choral delicacies
‘If Adam and Eve led us to perdition just for an apple, what would they have done for a turkey?’ The opening bon mot of Jean Françaix’s Ode à la Gastronomie of 1950. I bought a copy in a music shop in Hereford in 1988 and it lay on my bookshelf for 25 years. Despite comparison with other 12-voice French works from the time by Daniel-Lesur (also on our new album, ‘Amuse-Bouche’), Messiaen and Jolivet, no recording has been made. So when I got in touch with the composer’s son and daughter in 2013 they were excited, knowing only of two concert performances – one from the 1950s and the other from the 1980. Cut to June 2015 and 12 English singers are trying to get a handle on it. But it’s no good our expecting the notes to do it all for you, lovely though they are. With Beecham’s warning (‘The English don’t like music – just the noise it makes’) firmly in mind, we have to find the heart of this piece - lightly worn wit: ‘you will notice the unique taste of the left leg on which the partridge stands when it rests.’ Not belly laughs but an affectionate giggle at the expense of French attitudes to food and their whole thing about dining, epitomised by the classic 1825 tome – Brillat-Savarin’s Physiologie du goût. It’s still read today, even by the chef of the little French café we were eating at while recording in Tooting. ‘Bien sûr,’ says the patron (which is odd, as he’s Morrocan).
‘Dessert without cheese is like a beautiful lady who is missing one eye.’ Not the sort of thing you’d say these days but Françaix delights in drawing our attention to the more outlandish passages from the book and adding his own thoughts: ‘But the lass, under the truffle’s influence, was ogling the chef’s meat.’ Ah, the power of the black truffle. While the main text is delivered, Françaix has cooked up an accompaniment full of word jokes, nursery rhymes, wine vintages and kitchen noises. How to get this across?
Over 30 years as a group we’ve revelled in getting to grips with characterful Renaissance pieces which needed a little helping hand to make their point across the centuries. We filmed a madrigal comedy (Vecchi’s L’Amfiparnaso), staged a whole host of comic French and Spanish pieces so that audiences can immediately appreciate the humour, and our recording of the Striggio 40-part mass was recorded in the round with an accompanying film so that audiences could get a feeling for the scale of it and the importance of the layout of the musicians. I’m coming to the conclusion with this Ode that it’s so based on a time and place in which the act of eating was the main focus of the day (my French wife has memories as a child of having to stay at the meal table for over two hours at a time), that we’ll need to find a similar solution.
Cue Polyphonic Films who made ‘The Full Monteverdi’ for us with director John La Bouchardière. I toss a few ingredients at John who creates an 18-minute à la carte menu spéciale which brings the Ode alive. ‘Voilà monsieur, ca se mange.’ The full translation of the piece (including as many of the puns as we could fit in) is in the CD booklet but you can watch the film here:
'Amuse-Bouche' is a Gramophone Editor's Choice recording in the current (April 2016) issue of Gramophone. Read the full review in the Gramophone Reviews Database or explore our subscription options here: gramophone.co.uk/subscribe