While they were both at the Salzburg Festival in 1934, Pierre Bernac wrote a three-line note to Francis Poulenc: ‘I have been asked to sing some Debussy in three days’ time. Would you agree to accompany me? Handsome fee, give me your reply quickly.’ Thus, on the spur of the moment, began a partnership in song that was to last for 25 years. Together Bernac and Poulenc built up a repertory, based on Poulenc’s own songs, but exploring the works of the great French songwriters and occasionally dipping into the Lied.
Bernac’s voice had such an individual beautiful sound, even though it was not especially full or sensuous. His palette of vocal colours was vast, within such a limited range of volume. He had in common with the greatest recitalists the ability to make every word seem new. Once you have heard Bernac, either in the ghostly drama of Debussy’s Colloque sentimental or the ephemeral charm of Chabrier’s
Most of the recordings on this set were previously available on three LPs issued in the 1980s by The Friends of Pierre Bernac (10/85), and once again they have contributed to this larger-scale survey. The BBC recital of songs by Gounod is particularly charming, and Bernac’s reading of
Bernac recorded Dichterliebe with Robert Casadesus for CBS – a performance and recording greeted at the time with rapture by Poulenc. This earlier version with Gerald Moore seems not to have been issued, though Bernac was in excellent voice. Even as early as 1952 Poulenc was writing ‘we are entering the autumn of our association – we must at all costs avoid the winter.’ His last great song-cycle written for Bernac was Le travail du peintre, songs based on Paul Eluard’s evocation of the work of seven contemporary painters. The BBC recording here was made just after they performed it for the first time at the Edinburgh Festival in 1957. Bernac’s voice is nearer the microphone than in the later studio recording on Ades (8/90). There isn’t a lot to choose between the two; Bernac has lost nothing in his way with phrasing and words, even though there is more of a ‘loose’ sound about the voice, verging on a wobble. This third CD ends with an interview, recorded in 1977, with Graham Johnson asking the grand old man to talk about his career. It’s delightful: his English is wellnigh perfect, spoken with that mixture of courtesy and irony which seem to sum up his character.
Texts and translations are included but there is no note about the composers so those unfamiliar with the names of Louis Beydts (1895-1953) and Pierre Vellones (1889-1939) may like to know that the former, whose output included several operettas, was a pupil of Messager, and the latter, a painter as well as a composer, wrote a concerto for saxophone.