New French Song

Twenty new settings of French words by British Composers

Alison Smart (Soprano), Katharine Durran (Piano)

The Composers
Judith Bingham, Diana  Burrell, John Casken, Bob Chilcott, Edward Cowie, Laurence Crane, Michael Finnissy, Graham Fitkin, Adam Gorb, Sadie Harrison, Gabriel Jackson, Andrew Keeling, Nicola LeFanu, Edward McGuire, Tarik O’Regan, Roger Redgate, Helen Roe, Howard Skempton, Will Todd, Hugh Wood

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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 Sunday
18 July 2004

The Project

New French Song has created a whole new repertoire of songs by British composers.

The project was conceived in 1999, when soprano Alison Smart and pianist Katharine Durran were giving recitals marking the centenary of Poulenc's birth and celebrating the songs of Fauré.

They commissioned twenty exceptional British composers, some of whom were well established, others of whom were yet to receive the recognition they deserve.

The composers were asked to set French literature of their choice from the past two hundred years. The texts, ranging from Victor Hugo to the new millennium, were chosen by the composers in consultation with Alison Smart and Katharine Durran, and form a wonderful springboard for the composers' individual expression

The result is a fascinating rainbow work covering all the major literary movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, overlapping into the twenty-first century – Romanticism, Symbolism, Surrealism, Cubism, Modernism and post-Modernism

The twenty songs were written in 2003 and 2004. Alison Smart and Katharine Durran premièred them on 13th July 2004 at the Purcell Room, South Bank Centre, London.

New French Song forms a substantial contribution to the art song repertoire, and demonstrates a rare a nd far-reaching artistic vision.


Review : 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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Katharine Durran

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Full Index of poets and composers

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