New French Song
Twenty new settings of French words by
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 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
twenty songs were written in 2003 and 2004. Alison Smart and Katharine
Durran premièred them on
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.
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.
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BBC Singer ALISON SMART specialises in the performance of new vocal
repertoire, although she is also very much in demand as an oratorio