These beautiful settings of poetry by Saint-Saëns are a twenty-first century reflection on the French mélodie of the late nineteenth century. While retaining the memorable freshness and distinct character of James Francis Brown’s recent music, they also throw a fascinating light on the literary preoccupations of a French master who continues to intrigue and surprise by his wide range of interests and abilities.
The Songs of Nature and Farwell make an ideal programme companion to Ravel’s Chansons Madécasses which share the same forces of soprano, flute, cello and piano.
Songs Of Nature And Farewell
Composer’s Programme Note
Le Chêne (The Oak Tree) is an airy and good-natured 'letter' to an old friend, Edmond Cottinet, with whom the composer had collaborated on various stage works. The oak tree is, perhaps, a symbol of growth and the perils that beset the path of all creative endeavours. In homage to Saint-Saëns’ own predilection for pastiche this song fuses the forms of minuet and bourée in a carefree, neo-classical manner.
La Libellule (The Dragonfly) is rather darker in tone. The insect in flight, whilst beguiling and superficially charming, is presented as a predator with a more sinister purpose. This is a classic symbol of the femme fatale and casts an interesting light on the speculations surrounding Saint-Saëns' own relationships with women.
The sentiments of the final poem 'Adieu' (Farewell) are also very much in keeping with the preoccupations of French poetry at that time - the desire to escape from worldly concerns and enter a paradise of contemplation and calm. The song opens with a cello solo in a somewhat despondent mood which is dispelled by the prospect of a steam-ship, slumbering in a bay, ready to carry the composer away.
The central section is a dream-like evocation of an island paradise. Here the imagery called to mind Gauguin's Tahiti paintings with those voluptuous forms and an almost ominous sense of the power of nature. Towards the end of this section, Saint-Saëns addresses another old friend and collaborator, Louis Gallet (the poem’s dedicatee) and appears to renounce his entire career, handing over the trials and tribulations, somewhat archly, for Gallet to 'enjoy at leisure'.
Finally, with a sense of joyful release the ship sets sail and Saint-Saëns finds a charming metaphor for the impossible dream - flying fish! Here, the flute, released from its lower octave, relishes the sea-spray and fresh air of freedom before the ship meets the horizon in a quiet reminiscence of the central, island music.
These songs are dedicated to the memory of Pauline Mara-Isserlis. A flautist herself, I could not help but identify the flute in these songs with my affectionate memory of her.
Soprano, Flute, Cello, Piano
The Wigmore Hall
3rd November 2011
Wigmore Hall, London
Rachel Nicholls (soprano)
Emily Beynon (flute)
Steven Isserlis (cello)
Connie Shih (piano)
Score available from amazon.co.uk HERE