La Voix Humaine is an extraordinary work, written in 1932 by Poulenc to a one act monologue from Jean Cocteau. It’s a depiction of a phone conversation performed by one woman, having a last call to her recently departed lover for 45 minutes.
If, like me, you read that and wondered how it could possibly be interesting, you’ll be pleased to know Poulenc meets the challenge head on, with extraordinary fraut moments that capture the lover’s tension, ranging from a near hysteria to an uneasy, vulnerable calm.
This re-released recording has some historical significance, conducted as it is by Georges Pretre, who also directed the French premiere in 1959. The sound isn’t always great, particularly at orchestral climaxes, but the performance is well worth the modest outlay, despite the fact that there are no fillers on the disc, unusual for a classical release.
A bit more about the piece – the first, immediate impact being Poulenc’s sound effect of a xylophone to depict the telephone bell. Immediately the atmosphere is tense as Julia Migenes’ character is distracted by another caller refusing to hang up on the line (before the days of call waiting, obviously!) and then the clear relief as she finally gets through to her lover.
The worrisome picture continues, although by this time I was having real trouble following the text. If you want a French version and English translation at the same time, you have to keep flicking backwards and forwards in the booklet and inevitably lose your place – very frustrating!
At times the dialogue is almost that of a mobile phone conversation, with “Hello! No, I’m still here…” almost likely to be followed by “you’re breaking up” or “I’m on the train”! In fact it is like eavesdropping on someone’s chat on the train, the sort you can’t help but be drawn to, and Migenes imbues it with a real sense of drama. As does Pretre, bringing out Poulenc’s orchestral flourishes with great authority. Some of the slower chords are gorgeous, and provide natural punctuation between the phrases, often with moments of great tenderness.
The pace heightens as the central character hints at an overdose, but I won’t give away the ending – safe to say that it ends with an orchestral flurry and a heavy minor-key chord.
La Voix Humaine is a very interesting work, and almost one of a kind in the 20th century, with only Schoenberg’s Erwartung coming to mind as anything similar. However you’ll get greater reward if you photocopy the English text and put it alongside the French. Must go now, my money’s running out…