Voices Volume 2
Iain Burnside’s Tuesday afternoon Voices programme on BBC Radio 3 regularly comes up with surprising song repertory of every kind, and this second CD from Black Box based on the programme has some attractive rarities. All the songs are settings of poems by Paul Verlaine, and if you thought that was a field of French song that was totally familiar, think again.
Deliberately avoiding the best-known Verlaine settings, those of Fauré, Burnside and his two singers have sought out alternative versions so that we hear the familiar words with a jolt, the music shedding new light on the poetry. Debussy’s ‘Colloque sentimentale’, from the second set of Fêtes galantes ends the recital, but here is the much earlier mélodie by Charles Bordes (1863-1909). Susan Bickley sings them both, and, no, the Bordes isn’t superior to Debussy – how could it be? Yet, ‘the night only heard the words they said’; as in Debussy, the ghosts are accompanied by a quiet tread, but as they begin to speak the long-forgotten passion wells up. The questioner, who still believes in the notion of love, has an almost operatic motif, but her lover walks on – in Bordes there is no doubt that it is the woman who speaks first – oblivious to the memory of love on Earth. It’s a marvellous song, and if Debussy hadn’t set the poem, too, years later, maybe Bordes’s name would be better-known.
Gustave Charpentier’s Chanson d’automne and Colombine by Poldowski (Irene Wieniawska), both receive sympathetic performances from Susan Bickley, but perhaps the biggest surprise of all is Vaughan Williams’s The sky above the roof – Verlaine’s Prison in English. This is one instance where Fauré’s setting has been overshadowed by that of another composer – Hahn’s D’une prison. Vaughan Williams must have known both of these when he composed this in 1908, but the English words by M Dearmer do give the poem a different feel. ‘What have you done with all your youth?’ is a straightforward translation of ‘Qu’as tu fait de ta jeunesse?’, but the omission of the crucial phrase, ‘toi que voilà’ makes the whole thing seem more Camden Town than Mons.
Iain Burnside describes Verlaine as ‘alcoholic, violent, wildly irresponsible and irretrievably selfish’. His poems, though, speak of a mind alert to every nuance of human emotion. The responses of the composers, too, have been multi-coloured: juxtapose Debussy’s ‘Green’ from Ariettes oubliées with Hahn’s Offrande, both settings of Voici des fruits, des fleurs, or Delius’s Il pleur dans mon coeur with Debussy’s in the same cycle.
Most of the rarities go to Susan Bickley, but in some of the well-known Debussy songs Lisa Milne sings with sensitivity and a fine feeling for the balance between poem and music. Both singers are accompanied with Burnside’s understanding of the shifting styles: the earliest song here is Debussy’s Mandoline from 1882, the latest Honneger’s Un grand sommeil noir from 1945. Among the many other delights are Szulc’s Clair de lune (a Melba favourite), sung languorously by Lisa Milne, and Charles Koechlin’s La Chanson des ingénues, a typically teasing piece from this master of disguise. All in all, this is an unusually stimulating recital.