New French Song

Twenty new settings of French words by British composers

Alison Smart (Soprano)  Katharine Durran (Piano)


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Review of the CD :  

From MusicWeb International

Any release that broadens the range of art song before the public immediately arouses my interest. The idea of getting twenty British composers to set French texts might initially raise fears about the love-hate relationship that supposedly exists between the two nations. Nothing could be further from the truth, and this disc is much the stronger for it.

The listening experience is interesting too; indeed one could think of this as the musical equivalent of twenty miniature images displayed in a row. With each track you’re moved along the line to something new. Each is by its very nature a concentrated experience as there’s no growing accustomed to a continuity of style or technique. What is each composer’s sensitivity and approach to text like and which takes primacy in performance, text or music?

Then there’s the texts ... and the range of poets covered. Here in this case are some of the true greats. In one case there’s the opportunity to compare two settings of the same text.

The excellent booklet includes full texts with translations accompanied by composer and poet mini profiles. We are told how the project was borne out of the experience of these artists performing Poulenc and Fauré in 1999. Whilst only a couple of the works presented here have anything approaching the subtlety of response that those great Frenchmen exhibit in their chansons, they nonetheless offer adventure and amusement that is amply rewarding. Indeed it is often the more off-beat texts that have the staying power: Beckett, Crane and Satie - who else could make a list of white foods bring a smile to your face?

There is a tendency here to explore vocal extremes, be it in terms of range (Redgate) or intensity of attack (Gorb). However, this is balanced by the inner calm and reflectiveness that others achieve. Tarik O’Regan’s Mallarmé setting hasn’t failed yet to draw me in and make me stop everything to listen, so too McGuire and Jackson. Others instil different reactions. Harrison appears extract-like. Redgate takes the song to the point of vocal abstraction. Bingham has a slight indifference to the text perhaps. Then there are the gentle nods from one composer to another artist: Jackson to Debussy and LeFanu to Whistler.

Listening to the whole disc at one sitting might be a touch wearing, and quickly I adopted the pattern of listening to smaller groups. As with most intricately created miniatures inevitably there were facets that revealed themselves only on repeated visits. Gradually preferred individual songs and groups emerged. Groups of poets, groups of tempi – alike and contrasting – allowed for the creation of mini-recitals drawn from the overall pool. For example, I found the following particularly effective: the contrast between Todd and Cowie or the suitably questioning Roe against Skempton’s lilting rhythms and natural linguistic feeling.

Whilst Alison Smart is set a tall order by the composers, to my ears she makes a strong case for these songs. Perhaps here and there one regrets that a feel for the inner music of the French language is sacrificed a little so that a vocal high wire act can be pulled off. But then that maybe shows a composer’s lack of innate linguistic affinity too. Katharine Durran offers solid support throughout, her instrument being recorded closely, but allowing for a nice atmosphere to develop around it – though it too can be insistent when required by the likes of Bingham or Fitkin.

Artistically enterprising and uncompromising, with excellent production values too, this Metier release is well worth exploring.

Evan Dickerson

Review of the Première : New French Song on the South Bank

How often do you get twenty British premières in one concert in one evening? Probably very rarely, if ever. Congratulations then to soprano Alison Smart and pianist Katharine Durran for devising such a fascinating programme under the title New French Song.

For their Purcell Room recital on 13 July they commissioned twenty British composers to set music to any French literature of their choice from the past 200 years. The selected texts covered a wide range of writers from the Romantics and Symbolists right through to the post­-Modern era; one of the composers, Edward McGuire, chose to set his own text to music. The result was a medley of songs on the subjects of life, death, memory, youth, the Tour de France and even a rather bizarre dinner menu!

What was very interesting about this concert was each composer's personal response to the imagery and language within their chosen text and whether they chose to pay homage to the French harmonic language and textures of the past or to go a different route. Gabriel Jackson's setting of A la Mémoire de Claude Debussy by Jean Cocteau was the most overt in its reference to Debussy's piano music and harmonic language of once-forbidden parallel fourths and fifths. Edward Cowie nodded towards Debussy and Messaien in his use of birdsong, while Tarik O'Regan and John Casken were particularly interesting in their impressionistic textures and colouring. Otherwise these song-settings were disparate in their huge variety of compositional ideas and methods

The most powerful song of the evening was Adam Gorb's setting of Charles Baudelaire’s La Cloche Fêlée; this terrifyingly intense, chilling poem was musically portrayed by the particularly effective writing in the piano, employing opposite extremes of pitch and with bass tones stopped inside the instrument by the pianist to conjure up the death rattle of the bells.

Alison Smart was in full control of her voice throughout the recital, pitching the frequently challenging vocal lines with ease. Though hers is not a huge voice and her diction was occasionally under-projected, she elicited a really impressive range of colours and contours, comfortably handling the stylistic changes between songs. She was, without doubt, helped by having a true painter as her partner at the keyboard. With a remarkable sensitivity and wide palette of colours, Katharine Durran’s playing was a musical lesson in Art history. Let’s hope that this duo persuades other performers to jump on the bandwagon and further explore what our composers today have to offer.

Magnus Carey

Musical Opinion September/October 2004  



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Review of the Première : New French Song
Purcell Room, London  

It's rare to go to a recital and hear 20 songs you haven't heard before. It's even more unusual when they are all by living composers. New French Song, devised and commissioned by soprano Alison Smart and pianist Katharine Durran, was certainly ambitious in bringing together 20 new works by contemporary British composers, each of them setting a French text.

Smart and Durran spread their net widely, commissioning senior figures like Hugh Wood (born in 1932) and Edward Cowie (1943), then moving down the generations to Will Todd (1970) and Tarik O'Regan (1978). Mallarmé proved the most popular choice, with three attempts. One text - Apollinaire's Le Pont Mirabeau - was set twice, in quite different ways, by Todd and Howard Skempton. Glaswegian Edward McGuire set his own words, in French. Laurence Crane chose a list of statistics from the Tour de France, whose most appealing feature was the opportunity to hear the name Eddy Merckx set to music - presumably for the first time.

The performers committed themselves to a broad range of styles, too - the modernist complexities of Michael Finnissy and Roger Redgate sat side-by-side with Graham Fitkin's minimalism and Howard Skempton's three-chord-trick ultra-simplicity in his Apollinaire piece, which was like a fragment of a lugubrious Piaf cabaret number endlessly repeated. Fitkin's setting of a few lines of Erik Satie's food diary, as quirky as the man himself 
("I eat only white food: eggs, sugar, grated bone marrow, the fat of dead animals, veal, salt, coconuts," it begins), had an engagingly manic quality: it would make a good encore piece. Judith Bingham's waywardly Gothic La Jeune Morte was certainly striking.

There were a few outright failures, the most common fault being the usual tendency to spin things out beyond the interest of the material itself.In a couple of the pieces the vocal writing was awkward, and though Smart's delicate voice is well suited to French song (at least the more classical variety) she was, not surprisingly, taxed by such a lengthy and demanding programme. But both she and pianist Durran are excellent musicians with a strong mutual rapport. They brought the thing off all right.

Since these occasions always have something of the sense of a competition about them, let's get the scorecards out and pick a few winners. In third place I'd put John Casken's Colloque Sentimental, with its echoes of Debussy, for its overall technical finish. Second prize goes to Edward Cowie for his onomatopoeic owl song Les Hiboux, which was organically alive and witty without ostentatiously trying to be funny.

In first place I'd put Will Todd, for Le Pont Mirabeau, with its flowing river Seine accompaniment underpinning a memory of lost love in the vocal line. The piano and voice were imaginatively integrated, and there was a powerful sense of atmosphere. So it is gratifying to record a British song in first, second and third place on this occasion, even if that was kind of inevitable in the circumstances.

George Hall
Independent on
18 July 2004


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Katharine Durran

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BBC Singer ALISON SMART specialises
in the performance of new vocal repertoire,
and is also very much in demand
as an oratorio soloist.