Satie 'Socrate'

This recording is a treasury of the rare and exotic, a collection of quintessentially french, french songs, many of them forgotten and unperformed for several generations. French song typically offers easy, elegant music as a backdrop for poetry that explores a concise and intense emotion. The glory of this style is ultimately the French language itself, which few use to greater effect than Hugues Cuenod. He shared the cultural background of these song writers, yet, his extraordinary performing longevity spans the modern age. Cuenod’s performances have the unerring natural timing of a storyteller as he draws us into the web of these unexpected gems.



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This recital by Hugues Cuenod and Geoffrey Parsons, dating from 1977, preserves musicianship of the highest quality in performances of music that is effervescent and droll, or plangent and deep. It helps that the selected songs are, in the main, less well-known.
Not many will have heard of Jacques de Menasce, for example, whose witty children’s ‘thank you’ letters are based on texts he actually received from the children of fellow composer Daniel Lesur. How charming is the repetition of ‘…et vous en remercions beaucoup.’ in the second, which is suffused with Poulencian wit. In the Chabrier settings one admires the balance of pianism and vocal qualities equally, which both need to function if these ‘barnyard’ settings are fully to work. Fortunately, as noted, Parsons is fully equipped and his deft pianism plays its considerable share in the performance’s success. The halting villanelle for the ducks is a winner, the rosy pigs are quite mellifluous – maybe unexpectedly – and the movement for the turkey-cocks quotes Mozart. What more could one want? 
Honegger’s Saluste du Bartas, composed in 1941, consists of six very brief settings which are villanelles again, this time by Pierre Dedat de Monlaur. The first starts off like a Swiss Percy Grainger but they’re, despite the brevity, compacted with style and élan, notably the glittering turmoil of the fifth setting. These are well worth a place on the recital stage, but difficult, one assumes, to programme satisfactorily. It’s certainly not fanciful to hear the tidal waves pounding through the sole Roussel setting, which talks of an admiral’s daughter. Poulenc’s ‘C’ wears its hints of medieval balladry adeptly, espousing a continuum of suffering from ancient times to nearer our own, conveyed with rich directness, so too the uncanny imitations of a guitar in the companion poem.
The rest of the disc is given over to Satie. There’s salty wit in the central setting of La Statue de Bronze from Trois Mélodies. In the Ludions songs – with the first called Air du Rat you can’t go far wrong, in French or English – one also gets a Yankee university song and plenty of saucy badinage all round, in fact. Socrate. Drame Symphonique avec voix (1919) is meatier stuff obviously, in three movements, the last of which lasts 16 minutes, which is significantly more than the first two combined. The first part sets a eulogy of Socrates by his favourite pupil, Alcibaides. The second is a dialogue between Socrates and another of his pupils, Phaedrus. The final section is the death of Socrates in the form of a monologue by Phaedro, another philosopher. The music is highly effective, the second movement in particular evoking conversational and noble qualities with considerable subtlety of expression. The final movement is the cumulative centre of gravity though, a slow recessional, the ebbing away of Socrates’ life by suicide – the final movements mirrored by the ascent of the voice (perfect for Cuenod of course, and his extraordinary disembodied tone) and the slow slipping away of the piano’s bass figures. Deeply impressive, though not at all indulged or lachrymose.

Thankfully full texts and translations are provided, though Cuenod’s diction is excellent, as is the recording quality. Specialists and generalists on the prowl for unfamiliar French repertoire should (re)acquaint themselves with this fine disc.
Jonathan Woolf,


In June 1988 I was lucky to attend a song recital at the Wigmore Hall with the legendary Swiss tenor Hugues Cuénod. The recital was specifically announced as his 86th birthday celebration! He looked at least thirty years younger, slim and vital, and his voice was as fit as it was fifty years earlier. It was never a very sonorous voice, rather white and almost androgynous but marvellously expressive and with pinpoint enunciation. One year earlier he had made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, singing the Emperor Altoum in Turandot – the oldest debutant in the house. Sixty years before the Wigmore Hall recital he had made his first appearance on a stage, in the first jazz opera, Jonny spielt auf. A remarkable career! Even more remarkable is the fact that he is still amongst us, living in the Château de Lully in the Vaud region in Switzerland, recently turned 108! There is a photo of him on Wikipedia, taken in February this year. One can’t believe he is that old.
I have nowhere been ably to find recording dates but since it is an analogue recording one can suspect that it was set down some time before the publishing and copyright year 1985. Cuénod’s voice is however exactly as I remember it from the Wigmore Hall recital. Besides the opportunity to hear him at whatever age, the programme is also very interesting. Apart from the Poulenc and Satie songs the rest is un-hackneyed repertoire but should definitely be heard more often. They are mostly light-hearted and humorous, often rhythmically enticing and many of them should be attractive encores after a serious song recital.
Jacques de Menasce isn’t a household name today but the two songs performed here give an indication that his oeuvre could be worth seeking out. They were first performed in 1954 by Cuénod and are settings of ‘thank-you’ letters that he received from the children of his friend and composer colleague Daniel Lesur. There is Poulencian esprit about them. Chabrier regarded the four songs sung here as his ‘Barnyard Suite’. They are utterly amusing portraits of animals in the countryside and were written while the composer was living in the country and thus was familiar with the special atmosphere there. Melodically appealing they have something in common with Chabrier’s piano compositions, which are also too rarely heard. In the last of the songs, ‘Ballad of the Fat Turkey-Cocks’ he even quotes Don Giovanni’s serenade from Mozart’s opera in the ritornellos. Honegger, with whom Cuénod cooperated, is basically known for rather stern music but in this song-cycle about Saluste du Bartas, he is in his sunniest mood. The songs are short and Cuénod sing them with obvious relish. Also Roussel lets his hair down in the song from his op. 20. He wrote quite a few songs and there exist recordings with singers like Mady Mesplé, Gérard Souzay, Elly Ameling and others, including Claire Croiza, who recorded several of them in 1928 with the composer at the piano.
The two Poulenc songs are in a more serious vein. ‘C’ is Louis Aragon’s reminiscences of May 1940 when so many French people fled before the German invasion. It is one of the most beautiful French songs and Cuénod sings it with great warmth. A sa guitarre was written for Yvonne Printemps to be sung – accompanied by a harp - in a play by Edouard Bourdet. Cuénod sings with an exquisite legato.

The rest of the disc belongs to Erik Satie and here Cuénod is superb, whether in the cabaret style in which Satie often excels, or in the witty miniatures in Ludions. The major piece, with a total playing time of almost half an hour, is the Drame Symphonique - Socrate. As the liner-notes point out it is neither symphonic nor very dramatic but it has a special fascination even so. It was written for four solo sopranos and a chamber orchestra but at the first performances it was sung by a solo voice, often a soprano but at least once by a tenor with Satie at the piano. In other words this way of performing it was authorized by the composer. I can’t say honestly that I like it very much but it grows on you. I have owned this disc for more than twenty years and returned to it from time to time but often stopped listening before Socrate. Now for the review I forced myself to play it straight through and realized that without being a masterwork it is very special.
Geoffrey Parsons makes the most of the accompaniments and the Nimbus recording is worthy of the occasion. It is hard to imagine more idiomatic singing of these songs.
Göran Forsling,

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