La Vie est une parade
Erik Satie: Two
songs, arranged by Easley Blackwood
Satie: Trois Mélodies
de 1886; Trois Mélodies de 1916; Elegie; Tendrement; Chanson médiévale;
arranged by Robert Caby
The extremely versatile Patrice Michaels has made over a dozen recordings for Cedille, ranging from baroque to contemporary music in several languages. Her 2003 recital of French songs — by mostly French composers — with orchestral or chamber-orchestra accompaniment is of particular interest for its unusual but well-integrated program, mixing often-performed works with extreme rarities in refreshing arrangements.
The most "serious" work is placed at the center of the program: Benjamin Britten's 1939 setting for voice and string orchestra of Arthur Rimbaud's proto-surrealist Les Illuminations. (It was written for soprano but has been performed by tenor as well, probably more often, ever since Peter Pears gave the American premiere.) This work is "framed" by much lighter, more traditional folksong arrangements by Germaine Tailleferre (who is best known for being a member of the celebrated group of young French composers Les Six back in the 1920s, though these arrangements are from the 1950s), four before Les Illuminations, five after. These in turn are framed by various songs of Erik Satie: two orchestrated by Chicago composer Easley Blackwood, plus nine by Robert Cady, a friend of the composer and editor of his works. As a sort of chaser, the program ends with a work by Darius Milhaud (another of Les Six, and a spiritual son of Satie): his setting of four poems by Pierre de Ronsard (premiered in 1941 by Lily Pons at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, no less).
The majority of the Satie pieces are "light" music too, but here one must use quotation marks, because while these songs recall the salon and cabaret music of his heyday (from the world of Toulouse-Lautrec to that of Josephine Baker), they often seem to be ironic winks at--or deadpan facsimiles of--"pop" styles. The two arrangements by Blackwood are especially in a French music-hall style: a cakewalk-y mockery of a "Diva de l'Empire" and a sentimental slow waltz ("Je te veux"). Michaels sings them in a playful but straightforward manner, her lovely tone caressing the melodic lines. But the three songs of 1886 plus the "Elegie" of 1887, all settings of poems by one J.P. Contamine de Latour, are more serious lyrical works, more in the manner of the art song and extremely worth getting to know. (I'd recommend programming your CD to play the four together — they are cuts 4, 5, 28, and 30.) I haven't sought comparisons with other versions, but Michaels' voice, clear and tender, never "overacting," always musically sensitive, is very satisfying. The songs of 1916, averaging only a minute in length, are playful settings of eccentric poems (e.g., one about a hatter who gets bread crumbs in his watch's gears), again skillfully rendered by Michaels, though one might like just a bit more variety of tone and color.
The Tailleferre settings of folk songs have lightly scored (mostly woodwind) accompaniments. Michaels in a program note suggests that they "use deceptively simple material the way a master baker makes a baguette: the result appears inevitably natural and tastes irresistible." The poems are in strict stanza form, the melodies distinctly French, the subject most often unhappy love, though lovers are sometimes mocked; subtle shifts in instrumental color provide variety.
The one seriously disappointing part of the program is the performance of Britten's Les Illuminations. First, Paul Freeman and the Czech National Symphony seem either unfamiliar with or unsympathetic to Britten's astoundingly brilliant and varied writing for strings: the opening "Fanfare," which should be electrifying, is perfectly tame in this recording, and the rest, if not conspicuously lacking, offers nothing special. Second, though Michaels is quite capable and sometimes touchingly delicate in her interpretation of these mostly prose poems, she does not project them in a very exciting or (again) varied manner. It would be unfair to compare her with the most celebrated male performers of the cycle (e.g., Peter Pears or Ian Bostridge), but I did listen to a 1987 out-of-print EMI CD featuring Jill Gomez with John Whitfield leading the Endymion Ensemble. Though the strings have that certain metallic quality heard in many early digital recordings, the performance is thrilling from the first notes of the "Fanfare" to the exhausted final moments of the postlude, "Départ." In particular, both soprano and orchestra soar in the ravishing "Antique." When Gomez sings, "I alone hold the key to this savage parade" (J'ai seul la clef de cette parade sauvage), you believe her.
Fortunately, Michaels' recital ends — well, not just on a high note but on many, thanks to Milhaud's high coloratura writing and our soprano's skill and charm in executing them. Ronsard's 16th-Century poems are on classic though fanciful themes — a fountain flowing in a pastoral landscape, a poet tormented by Cupid, a lover telling a noisy swallow not to wake his beloved, the coming of Spring. There is an interesting dynamic between them and Milhaud's settings, which are perkily modern, descendents of Satie (the swallow poem seems to have echoes of the composer's Brazil-inspired works). The Cupid poem stands out with its long lyrical lines for the soprano against a steady pulse in the orchestra. Cedille thoughtfully provides all the texts plus translations.