There are at least two other complete Poulenc song collections available on CD, from EMI (566849) and Hyperion (CDA68021/4). With 170 songs, this collection on Atma Classique appears to be the most complete, even including three apparently previously unrecorded songs: Viens! Une flûte invisible, Petite complainte and Chanson de marin. While these three works are not of great artistic consequence, it still nice to have them available. If you do the math, 310 minutes of music in these 170 songs means the average work lasts under two minutes. Indeed, most of the songs are short, many under a minute. In the Le bestiaire, ou cortège d'Orphée, there are two very short songs: La Chèvre du Thibet lasts just over a half minute and La Sauterelle clocks in at a mere nineteen seconds. Naturally such morsels are rather light, as is much of the fare offered in this collection. But "light" is not synonymous with slight. In fact, there are more than a few songs here with considerable depth of expression – but more on that later.
The album notes argue that Poulenc was a great melodist, especially in the realm of vocal music. Indeed, he was one of the finest creators of melody from the 20th century, perhaps rivaling Prokofiev and Rachmaninov in this respect. But the charge has been made about Poulenc that while he could produce gorgeous and memorable melodies, he often didn't know what to do with them. If there is some truth in that claim, then one can only say that such a composer would truly be at home in the genre of song, especially songs of very brief duration. Indeed, what we have here, for the most part, is a parade of distinctive melody in one song after another. Rarely is there anything here that doesn't catch the listener's ear with its deft sense of humor (Chanson a boire, from Chansons Gaillardes), or its sweet but subtle lyricism (Vocalise), or its chipper high spirits (Un poeme, from Deux poèmes de Guillaume Apollinaire).
Despite the composer's tendency to write brief and light songs, there are some serious works here – good ones, too. Pablo Picasso, from Le travail du peintre, is just one example. Oddly though, it's a fairly conventional effort, not what you'd expect in a song devoted to one of the more progressive minds in 20th century art. Hymne is also a great piece here, and one could also cite the two songs from Deux poèmes de Guillaume Apollinaire as very profound creations, profound even in their lighter moments. Poulenc himself thought very highly of these two songs, and he was a quite self-critical fellow.
Citing examples of this or that in a collection of 170 items seems almost futile, kind of like mentioning a few favorite moments from Wagner's Ring operas. Still, I want to mention more, like the irresistibly charming songs of the Chopin-inspired set Huit chansons polonaises. I could go on but let me just say in summary that most of the music in this collection is quite engaging, often upon first hearing. Poulenc writes in a very direct style and his piano accompaniments are deftly imagined. The performances are generally strong by the six singers – I particularly like Hélène Guilmette (try her brilliant La dame de Monte-Carlo). Also, the apparently indefatigable pianist Olivier Godin must be given high priase here: he plays with total commitment and sensitivity from beginning to end. The songs are not presented in chronological order on the discs, and thus some listeners may quibble a bit over that, but I certainly don't find it a problem. Texts are given in French and Atma Classique offers very lifelike sound reproduction throughout the set.
If you're interested in 20th century song, you should find this set a worthwhile purchase. Highly recommended!
Copyright © 2014, Robert Cummings