Classical Music: Small, perfectly formed, and 100 years old last week

Poulenc Centenary Wigmore Hall, W1 Park Lane Group Young Artists Purcell Room, SE1 Into the Woods Donmar, WC1

Francis Poulenc was a great composer of (mostly) small things. From the moment of his birth 100 years ago last Thursday, he fell foul of that old romantic equation of substance with struggle: the idea that artists find their voice by fighting for it.

For Poulenc, the fight wasn't obvious. His family was rich, his lifestyle comfortably supported by a pharmaceutical fortune. He slipped on to the Paris salon circuit at an early age. And he made his name as a purveyor of exquisite trifles: entertainment music of self-deprecating jokiness that took the anti-Wagnerian line of Erik Satie. For decades, France had been in thrall to the climactic self-importance and high seriousness of the Bayreuth master. By 1918, the incoming generation of young French composers had had quite enough of all that, and the raspberry radicalism of Les Six (that cafe-conscious collective of Auric, Durey, Tailleferre, Milhaud, Honegger and Poulenc) was the result.

Poulenc, of course, emerged as a more substantial figure than any of the others and, with the rediscovery of his lapsed Catholic faith in the mid-1930s, went on to write profoundly effective choral works and the oddly psycho-spiritual full-length opera, Dialogues des Carmelites, which ENO are staging in centenary tribute later on this year. He also wrote a handful of concerto scores, mostly of lightweight neoclassical dimension. But the core of his output was chamber-scale, and its absolute essence was song. Hence the song-based anniversary gala that took place at the Wigmore Hall on Thursday night.

It was a marathon event, packed tight with music, audience and artists. And though it wasn't quite the programme I'd have put together (too much dreary a capella choral business from the BBC Singers), there was plenty to admire: Felicity Lott at her gazelle-like, languid best in "Les chemins de l'amour"; Francois Le Roux and the Nash Ensemble, stylishly idiomatic in Le Bal Masque; Steven Osborne, all clarity and grace in the Three Novelettes for Piano; and Ian Bostridge singing Tel Jour, Telle Nuit with a fierce intensity that suggested he knows what these songs are about even if no else does.

But the true strength of the evening was the case it made for Poulenc as an artist of enduring stature: a god of small things, maybe, but small things of value. The Poulenc songs belong with those of Faure and Debussy as the principle achievements in the grand tradition of French melodie. They carry the words of the most striking French poets of the inter-war years, Elouard and Apollinaire. Graduating from the chic nonsense of things like Rhapsodie Negre, they gather weight with time, caught usually in an alluring tension between art and artlessness, sophistication and naivety, soft sentiment and hard-edged irony. If they never quite escape fond reminiscence of the "adorable mauvaise musique" that lodged in Poulenc's youthful consciousness like an addiction to cream cakes, they also have a Mahlerian ability to raise the currency of the banal, and validate the tittle-tattle of the salon into poetry.

What's more, since publication of Echo and Source, Poulenc's selected correspondence, in 1991, it has become ever more apparent that the composer didn't have it so easy as the world assumed. Emotionally he spent much of his life in turmoil, passionately loving young men who exploited him to the point of mental breakdown; and he spent a lifetime juggling the desires of his sexuality with the demands of his devout Catholic faith. But ultimately, in life as in art, Poulenc was a stylish reconciler of conflicting values. There's a story (told to me by someone in a position to know) of a circular walk he was accustomed to take of an evening from his apartment in the rue des Medicis by the Luxembourg Gardens. He would enter the Gardens on the east side, amuse himself with the soldiers who loitered in the nearby bushes for that purpose, and exit on the north side into St-Sulplice, where there would be a priest in the confessional. Having sorted out his soul, he'd then go home to supper and to bed. I hope the story's true. It has a charming neatness.

Poulenc aside, nothing much happens in the London concert world in the first week of the year - except the Park Lane Group's annual showcase for young artists in contemporary repertory, with two concerts per night in the Purcell Room. Usually there are one or two featured composers dominating the programmes. But this year it's been more of an open season, though with a clear emphasis on British scores. And the performances I caught included a very promising violin and piano duo - Daniel Bell and Huw Watkins - who made magnificent work of a tough score by Elliott Carter and two strikingly assertive miniatures by Watkins himself. Two names to listen for - especially Watkins, who looks eight and a half, but is a pianist of alert intelligence and a composer with something to say. Not many do.

I spent another part of this quiet week catching up with Into the Woods at the Donmar Warehouse. This show has already been reviewed on this page as theatre, but it bears revisiting as music - not least because Stephen Sondheim's score so miraculously transforms the ordinary into the exceptional, it could almost be Poulenc. From the soft-shoe shuffle of the title number onwards, this is music that works on the same terms as the narrative it supports, weaving fragments of familiar doggerel and home truth into a web of magically transforming brilliance. And though the Donmar cast hasn't the general (or vocal) class of the UK premiere production a few years back, it's perfectly good. There's a lot to be said for doing these Sondheim shows on the intimate scale.

The Donmar has made a speciality of chamber-scale Sondheim, with acclaimed stagings of Company and Assassins to its credit, and an Arts Council assessment last November which acknowledged the achievement with a recommendation for better funding. That a month later the Council made its 1999 awards and left the Donmar in the same uncertain position as before is inexplicable.

Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London