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
Thomas carried Lady Edith over the flames in her bedroom in Downton Abbey series five

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, seated next to a picture of his missing wife Amy, played by Rosamund Pike

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
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.

    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits