Sunday, 5 June 2016

A terrific release from Decca that brings together a wide variety of French songs on life’s pleasures and, indeed, sorrows that show I Fagiolini’s mastery and versatility as they celebrate their 30th anniversary

Award-winning vocal group I Fagiolini www.ifagiolini.com/amusebouche with their  Director Robert Hollingworth celebrate their 30th anniversary with a new album which offers a collection of French 20th Century choral delicacies and marks a departure from their previous recordings of Italian Renaissance music.

Entitled Amuse-Bouche – French Choral Delicacies this new Decca Classics www.universalmusicclassics.com recording includes two world premieres, Jean Françaix’s Ode à la Gastronomie and an arrangement for voices and piano of the slow movement of Ravel’s G major Piano Concerto, set to a text by Verlaine. These along with Cantique Des Cantiques by Jean-Yves Daniel-Lesur and songs by Francis Poulenc and Darius Milhaud are interspersed by Erik Satie’s Gnossienne played by Anna Markland. 

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A video can be seen about this new release at: https://youtu.be/Zbfky2IxWQE

Cleverly alighting on a variety of human pleasures and, it would seem, sorrows, the disc opens with Pro Fumo, sound effects that set the scene on a pleasure that will be obvious to the listener.

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) set texts by Guillaume Apollinaire (1880 - 1918) for his Banalités.  Hôtel is one of this set of five songs for voice and piano, composed in 1940 that includes the strange line ‘…I want to smoke and make shapes in the air.’ There is a languid piano opening from Anna Markland immediately joined by a fine tenor voice in this very French setting to which the other male voices of I Fagiolini join.  

Jean Françaix’s (1912-1997) Ode à la gastronomie receives here its world premiere recording. This is an extraordinary testament to the French attitude to food and dining with a text humorously adapted and expanded by the composer from a revered classic of French gastronomic writing, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s (1755-1826) La physiologie du goût (The Physiology of Taste) (1825). The writer famously said ‘Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.’ The work opens with La Physiologie du goût where Fagiolini produce some wonderfully precise phrasing showing their tremendous versatility. There are some very fine individual contributions as these singers bring many layers and textures together with a terrific lightness of touch and humour.  

Père Bernadin et la truffe noire (Father Bernardin and black truffle) brings some remarkably accurate singing and there are some finely shaped phrases that point up the humour, some rhythmic, comic moments and some rather complex layering of voices.

I Fagiolini sound out in a terrific opening to Gastéréa, dixième des Muses (Gastéréa the tenth Muse) before bringing the most lovely sonorous textures. They rise in some very fine vibrant passages, full of Gallic charm and humour.

Erik Satie (1866-1925) wrote six piano pieces called Gnossienne between1889 and 1897. Anna Markland brings a beautifully rounded, spacious account of Gnossienne No. 4 one of three on this disc to mark the 150th anniversary of Satie’s birth.

Jean-Yves Daniel-Lesur (1908-2002) was a French organist and composer, his best-known composition being the a cappella choral work, Le Cantique des cantiques (The Song of Songs), a setting for 12 voices of parts of the wedding lyrics from the Song of Songs, interspersed with Latin verses and New Testament texts.

In the opening Dialogue I Fagiolini appear at first to have returned to their early music roots in this beautifully harmonised sequence, rather otherworldly in its feel.

Little vocal leaps arise out of the choral flow to lift La Voix du Bien-Aimé (The Voice of the Beloved), a remarkably fine section where some lovely individual voices emerge as the section develops. A sense of intense urgency underlines Le Songe (The dream) with vocal lines rising up out of the choir as it progresses, some quite declamatory.

Le Roi Salomon (King Solomon) reveals some fine male voices as this choir surge forward, full of strength and confidence. There is a gentle, finely harmonised Le Jardin Clos (The closed garden) from the male voices over which the female voices glide, rising in richness and strength before a lovely coda.

La Sulamite (The Shulamite) has an underlying rhythmic pulse from part of the choir over which a longer line moves forward, these singers weaving a terrific tapestry of sound. With Épithalame (Marriage Song) the music initially regains some of the restrained nature of the opening part, only with greater forward movement. Beautifully layered and harmonised, I Fagiolini show just how fine a choir they are before rising to a tremendous conclusion.

Anna Markland returns to bring a fine rhythmic, light touch to Erik Satie’s Gnossienne No.5, beautifully phrased.

Francis Poulenc: Sept Chansons, published in 1936 opens with La Blanche Neige a setting of Apollinaire in a series of evocations of snow: an officer, a chef plucking a white goose’s feathers, concluding with ‘Ah, fall snow, fall and if only I had my beloved in my arms.’ I Fagiolini nicely shape this song, again with individual voices adding fine touches and with a lovely harmony to end.

A peine défigurée is a setting of one of Paul Éluard’s (1895-1952) best-known poems where the poet lies on his bed reflecting on the pleasures and pains of love. This choir bring some exquisite touches with beautifully blended textures. Par une nuit nouvelle is another Éluard poem of intense erotic longing. Energetic opening phrases give way to some very fine textures and slower languid phrases as the poet muses.

Another Éluard setting, Tous les droits, is all about erotic obsession. A succession of surrealist images is laid bare, with this choir showing the most lovely, rich textures.  In Belle et ressemblante Éluard is haunted by a beautiful face, which sets off a succession of images in his mind. I Fagiolini provide a lovely flow, exquisitely paced and phrased, with subtle dynamic shaping.

Marie again sets verses by Apollinaire which are suffused with an old man’s longing for a long-lost love whom he once saw dancing as a young girl. The choir show terrific vocal agility as this fine little setting moves forward, arriving at some extraordinary fine harmonies in the coda.

We return to Éluard for Luire which opens with a terrific outburst in this setting that is set at around dawn as the globe of the Earth hangs heavy on the shoulders of Atlas, but his burden will lighten as the day progresses, the sun shines, and the flowers open. The choir brings some lovely phrasing before rising up again for a fine coda.

Anna Markland brings a sense of mystery to Erik Satie’s Gnossienne No.6 as she gently moves through the lovely harmonies.

Darius Milhaud’s (1892-1974) Deux poèmes for vocal quartet were published in 1923 though probably written earlier. Éloge V takes a text by Saint-John Perse (1887-1975) This Eulogy evokes an imagined Guadaloupe with its sunshine, love, softness and calm. I Fagiolini beautifully shaped this setting, the small group of voices rising wordlessly before bringing the text, a lovely rising and falling weaving of lines, rising through some fine passages to a beautifully turned coda.

Le Brick sets a poem by René Chalupt (1885-1957) that opens with an account of the naughty goings-on on another far-distant island. There is some especially fine singing as these singers wonderfully weave all the phrases and lines of this setting.

Francis Poulenc’s Un Soir de Neige (Evening Snow) is described as a ‘little chamber cantata. ’ Written in 1944 it again sets verses by Éluard and is a poetic and musical expression of bleakness and desolation. Le feu (Fire) concerns the lack of wood for a fire. Female voices take the music forward before male voices join to weave the most lovely gentle harmonies. Un loup (A wolf) concerns death and moves ahead full of urgency through some finely characterised passages with some exquisite restraint and control. 

Derniers instants (Last moments) reveals the mortality that surrounds the poet in the frozen nocturnal forest. There are glorious textures and harmonies as I Fagiolini slowly allow this song to emerge with a languorous atmosphere. Du dehors (From outside) brings some fine female voices as they rise above the lovely sonorities of the choir in this short setting that conjures up a cry for help from this frozen landscape.

Baritone, composer and former member of I Fagiolini, Roderick Williams www.ingpen.co.uk/artist/roderick-williams has arranged the Adagio of Maurice Ravel’s (1875-1937): Piano Concerto in G major for voices and piano to a text by Paul-Marie Verlaine (1844-1896). Here Anna Markland brings a lovely restrained flow to this music. Part way a lone baritone joins, then a soprano before the choir takes the music forward, beautifully and sensitively done.  When the choir enters over piano trills it is quite magical, this choir finding a lovely sonority, shaping the vocal line perfectly. Later there is another passage on a dissonance when the choir find a lovely, beautifully blended texture over the piano. They rise to a quite wonderful choral climax before gently vocalising over a trickling piano line.

This is a terrific release that brings together a wide variety of French songs on life’s pleasures and, indeed, sorrows that show I Fagiolini’s mastery and versatility. 

My download revealed an exceptionally fine recording.

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