Amuse-bouche: French Choral Delicacies
Sensuality doesn’t so much ooze as burst in ecstatic, convulsive spasms from I Fagiolini’s latest recording. If it weren’t for the imagination of the programming and the bold, cheeky intelligence that guides the choice and juxtaposition of repertoire, then ‘Amuse-bouche’ – the group’s homage to all things French – would be frankly indecent.
As it is, the collection is the very best kind of musical pleasure, and one rather more substantial and enduring than the title might suggest. Robert Hollingworth and his singers roam widely across 20th-century France, through works by Poulenc, Ravel, Satie and Milhaud, but also pausing at two larger works – Jean Françaix’s genre defying Ode à la gastronomie (recorded here for the first time) and Jean Yves Daniel-Lesur’s choral song cycle Le Cantique des Cantiques.
Pleasure dominates both works. For Françaix it’s the delights of the stomach that preoccupy him as he pricks the pompous, ballooning belly of French gastronomy in his satirical, surrealist reworking of Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s La physiologie du goût. I Fagiolini bring all the madrigalian clarity and responsive, soloistic singing of their early music performances to this contemporary repertoire, catching the wit and the filth of Françaix’s extended musical joke in all its truffle-infused glory.
Only a tiny palate cleanser – Satie’s Fourth Gnossienne, delicately performed, as all of the piano works here, by Anna Markland – separates this extraordinary oddity from the purer ecstasies of Daniel-Lesur’s series of Song of Songs settings. While The Sixteen’s 1996 recording achieves a misty fragility, I Fagiolini’s 12 solo voices give the work an operatic freedom and scope that makes sense of these fragrant texts and their amplified emotions.
Poulenc’s chilly and chilling Un soir de neige cuts deliciously against the shifting, ambiguous sensuality and languor of Milhaud’s Deux Poèmes, where a vocal quartet provides sudden intensity after so many denser works. The album closes with a second premiere recording – of a new arrangement by Roderick Williams of the Adagio from Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G for solo piano and voices, who take up the orchestral lines. It’s a fascinating idea and elegantly executed by Williams, who manages both to preserve and to reinvent.
‘Amuse-bouche’ marks I Fagiolini’s 30th anniversary. It’s in keeping with Hollingworth and his agile, chameleon-like group that, instead of the inevitable greatest hits album, we get something entirely fresh and unexpected, a recording that’s a bit sexy, a bit silly and absolutely, unmissably superb.