Next Salon Discussion

First Tuesday current affairs discussion - Tuesday 3 September 7:00pm start

Donate via PayPal

Donations to development costs of website very gratefully received

PDF Print E-mail
Manchester music reviews

James Greer - Tenor

School of Music recitals, University of Liverpool

Reviewed by Denis Joe March 2011

James Greer (tenor)
Ronald Woodley (piano)

Henri Duparc Trois Mélodies
Francis Poulenc Tel Jour, telle nuit: neuf melodies sur des poems de Paul Eluard
Henri Duparc Trois Mélodies

There was something ingenious about the programming of this concert - 2nd March. Sandwiching Poulenc between the dark art songs of Duparc worked very well. Duparc composed little and published less. Writing around the time of the Franco-Prussian wars, his Mélodies  found little favour with the public, who did not appreciate the ‘Wagner influences’ of his work. His 17 art songs have a more sombre depth to them than those of most French composers; at times sounding more like lieder.


This would probably suggest the need for a baritone voice rather than that of a tenor, but Greer’s, almost bel canto, voice maintains the seriousness of the songs. This performance actually got me to see Duparc’s contribution as stretching beyond Debussy and Ravel and seemingly suggesting the move towards neo-classicism of the early part of the 20th century. 


L’invitation au voyage, a poem by Charles Bauderlaire, has an atmosphere of Schubert to it to begin with, but soon we begin to feel that we are in the more recognisable area of Debussy and Ravel. This is a great opening to the recital: an art song that recognises the impact of Wagner that would lead to the creation, two decades after Duparc’s death, of school of music composition that would stretch its influence across the Channel and inform the music of composers such as Vaughan Williams. What is also immediately noticeable is the type of tenor voice that the two traditions share. Whilst British and French art song calls for the higher register of the tenor, it is not utilised in the same manner of the Italian bel canto. Its seriousness seems to echo the values of the baroque period, when the higher voice suggested a closeness to God.


The next song, La Vague et la Cloche, reinforces that feeling and seems very much like a song from Schubert’s Der Wanderer. Based on a poem by François Coppée, it deals with the impact of the forces of Nature, but there is a greater (almost obscene) effect of those forces in Coppée’s poem, that is brought out well by the piano and the determination of the voice, and whilst the lyrics suggest a pointlessness with life, Greer manages to convey the closing line, Don’t est fait la vie, hélas! la vie humain with a feeling of belligerence rather than dismay.


Soupir certainly lives up to its title and is, unmistakably, French. The lyric, based on an early poem by Sully Prudhomme, is a bit hackneyed but many art song composers have elevated drab poetry to a higher level, and Duparc does so with this song. The restrained approach of Greer means that the words are sung, not for their meaning, but for their effect and there is no fausse emotion that one associates with Italian (especially, operatic) tenors. That is not to say that the work is treated ‘coldly’ but we are more aware that the work is that of a singer with piano accompaniment and the emotion comes from the performance. There is such a display of vocal or pianistic dexterity in these songs, and Greer’s and Woodley’s delivery suggested a strong passion for the technical beauty of the songs.


While 30 years ago many critics and musicians were willing to dismiss his music as trivial or unadventurous, the opinion these days accepts Poulenc as a minor master. In no other area did Poulenc excel than in art songs, and he is now regarded as one of the greatest melodic composers of the 20th Century.

Like the Britten/Pears partnership, many of Poulenc’s songs were written for the baritone Pierre Bernac including the song-cycle Tel Jour, telle nuit. They lose none of their appeal when transposed for tenor. And Greer manages to bring out the playfulness of the music; creating a lighter sound but one that still maintains the gravity of the composer’s intent. What advantaged Poulenc in composing art songs (as is also the case for the great American composer, Elliot Carter) was an intimacy with poetry, which allowed him to confidently set to music some of the more ‘difficult’ poetry, such as the work of his friend, the surrealist poet Paul Eluard.


Tel Jour, telle nuit is one of the greatest song cycles in the canon, and shows Poulenc at his highest level of mastery. The first thing to note is that Poulenc did not attempt to use music as reflecting any sense of Eluard’s poems and thus the poetry does not so much create the song as it compliments it and visa-versa.


Bonne journée begins broodingly enough but we have moved on from the sombreness of the Duparc songs. Though the music seems to reflect the poetry, we sense that it is Poulenc’s understanding that we are experiencing. The last verse: ‘Bonne journée journée qui commença mélancolique/Noire sous les arbres verts/Mais qui soudain trempée d'aurore/M'entra dans le coeur par surprise’ could almost be a different song. The movement from a pessimistic acceptance to sheer optimism in a song lasting under three minutes would have taxed the best composer, yet Poulenc managed to capture the schizoid emotion so naturally. Performers to will not find this easy, as the emotional level is on either extreme and, although you are aware of the piano as accompanying the voice, the experience also suggests two voices saying the same thing.


Une ruine coquille vide is a beautiful and tender song. It allowed Greer to be more relaxed and the phrasing of each word could be savoured. The song has a conventional feel to it, but that does not detract from its brilliance.


Le front comme un drapeau perdu open with on a strong, declamatory note that follows the twist and turns of Eluards word/images. Although Greer failed to follow Woodley’s playing, especially on, what I consider, the most important line in the song (‘Creuse la terre sous ton ombre’) that signals a turn in the narrative, it did not cause too much harm. (The only other tenor voice I know of this cycle is the English singer, Ian Bostridge, who has a lower range to his tenor and I wonder if Greer’s higher register might not have suited this particular song).


Ronald Woodley - PianoUne roulotte couverte en tuiles has a sinister feel to it. The drama of the song is handled beautifully and I could imagine that a less skilled singer than Greer would have not been so restrained. The line ‘Comme deux poings’ hits us in a way that ‘boo!’ may have jolted us in our childhood and there is a sadistic playfulness about ‘Ce mélodrame nous arrache/La raison du coeur’.


A toutes brides at under 40 seconds, is the shortest song in the group and is taken at a brisk gallop. Both piano and voice kept up with each other.


Une herbe pauvre has a very gentle feel to it. The poem, itself, suggests Japanese Tanka. And though Poulenc does not apply any Oriental tonics, he does treat the song as a very fragile thing. Of the songs from this group Une herbe pauvre seemed, to me, to be the most suitable for Greer’s voice and it was simply lovely to hear.


Je n'ai envie que de t'aimer. This is a truly romantic song, expressing tenderness and excitement and taken at a cracking pace. There are echoes of the earlier song, A toutes brides, both in the sentiment of the lyrics and the music, which tend toward the more exhilarating aspect of the subject than the darker, brooding side. Figure de force brûlante et farouche opens without piano introduction, presenting the song with a sense of urgency. It is a testament to Poulenc that he presents a nightmarish scenario but never allows thing to get out of hand. Of course the execution of the song calls on the skill of the artists presenting it. Geer and Woodley ensure that the pace is presented to us calmly and without any hint of the histrionics that the poem suggests.


Lastly, in this song cycle, Nous avons fait la nuit, a song that could almost be seen as a lullaby and I cannot think of a more beautiful song in which to end the cycle. There is a Schubert-like feel to the piano and the lilt of Greer’s voice gives this song a majestic feel. For me it was the highlight of the whole recital. A restrained, yet passionate, adieu. The poem itself is one which made me feel that this is what language was created for. The lines ‘Et dans ma tête qui se met doucement d'accord/Avec la tienne avec la nuit’ are some of the most exquisite that I have come across in any poetry.


I am not sure if it was a failing of Woodley, but some of the songs seemed to end with a thud. In the recordings of this cycle that I know of, there seems to be a fear, with some of the songs, of allowing the final note of the piano to be sustained for long, and it is brought to a sudden halt rather than allowed to fade out. I found this very noticeable (and slightly irritating) in this performance. But that is a small gripe when compared to the overall pleasure of experiencing these musicians playing this 20th century monument.


In the second half we were treated to three more Duparc songs. Phidylé is a deeply reflective song, based on a Leconte de Lisle poem. The song starts off gently, allowing for the lovely tones of Greer’s voice to take us into this song. It also allows us to hear Duparc at his most inspired and inspiring.The song flows from key to key, effortlessly and Greer seems to manage the changing moods of the song without a problem. For me this is the most pleasing of Duparcs song, but I may well be feeling just a little sentimental. It does have the feeling of the sort of light songs (Steven Foster’s “ Jeanie With The Light Brown Hair", for instance] and that is not such a bad thing.


The French Romantic poet Théophile Gautier inspired many French composers. Most famous was perhaps Berlioz’ ‘Les nuits d’été’. Lamento is the only known Duparc settings of one of his poems. Whilst we are in solemn territory here, something that is noticeable about Duparc’s songs, and is made obvious here, is the way that the piano does not simply accompany the voice but seems to pull it along and, in the process, demands that the voice provides its best. Both artists gave a very touching performance of this emotional song without any ostentatious display.


La vie anterieure,is another setting of a Charles Baudelaire poem (from his ‘Fleurs du mal’). A slow paced song that, I felt, did not suit Greer’s voice. It seemed that the pace had a very Russian feel to it and would, perhaps have a greater impact if sung by a bass voice.


If Duparc has any place in musical history it is his approach to art song. The texts are generally from Romantic poets and, with the benefit of hindsight, are unexceptional. But Duparc, with his classicist approach to the music certainly pointed the way forward for the neo-classicalism of Poulenc. His work suggests that the Romanticist approach was overblown, yet the tragic element was still somewhat central to his output. As one critic put it:


“Contrasting Duparc's songs with the songs of Schubert, Schumann and even Brahms, I think one might say that not only the choice of poems by Duparc, but also the musical setting he gave to those poems, shows him as a more essentially tragic composer than the great German song-writers. Schubert and Brahms could compose happily. And even Schumann could begin the ‘Dichterliebe’ with the romantically heart-lifting ‘In wundershönen Monnat Mai’. But Duparc is uniformly tragic.” [Henri Duparc Thomas MacGreevy, Irish Bookman. May 1947. p.74-78]


For me, the attraction of this recital was the Poulenc, who proved that you don’t have to be a manic depressive to compose an art song cycle.


This recital was a free lunchtime concert, provided by Liverpool University School Of Music. Most universities’ music schools provide a lunchtime programme. Sometimes those programmes feature guest artists (as was the case with this one) as well as providing students and lecturers with a platform to showcase new works.


Whilst audience expectation might not be as high as that for a professional (i.e.: ‘well known’) concert, I have found myself very surprised at the quality of new compositions and musicianship of those recitals I have attended.


The programmes are never more than an hour long and usually begin at 1pm, allowing people at work (and other students) to attend.


Below are the links to Liverpool and Manchester recital brochures:


Liverpool School Of Music


Martin Harris Centre for Music and Drama, Manchester

Join the Salon Email List
Youtube Video of discussion on Energy
RSS Feed for discussions
Manchester Salon Facebook Group
Manchester Salon Facebook Page
Manchester Salon on Twitter