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.

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