There’s a plethora of works by female composers over the years that remain unplayed and often even unpublished. But does that oeuvre constitute a hidden hoard of treasures? For their International Women’s Day concert, under the name of the festival “Un temps pour Elle”, the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées offered a tasting menu of vocal and chamber works from compositrices over the ages, adding in a new commission for good measure and enlisting the help of some of the biggest current names in French singing.

Elsa Dreisig
© Simon Fowler

Rita Strohl’s life ambition to build a French Bayreuth was extinguished with her death in 1941. But she left behind a substantial body of work scaled as high as full length symphonies. Her work is marked by many influences. First on the bill tonight was Sappho-inspired erotic poetry by Pierre Loüys rendered into her Chansons de Bilitis. With only a sparse piano accompaniment – the vocal line does it all in these songs – Elsa Dreisig brought a beautiful creamy tone and plenty of passion to the sweeps and swoons of the music. Unfortunately, what she didn’t bring was diction, so in a TCE with the lights dimmed to near-blackness, one had to rely on memory of the programme notes to discern full meaning.

Not so Stéphane Degout. In another selection from a Strohl cycle, three of the Six Poésies sur des poèmes de Baudelaire, Degout gave a blistering account of Baudelaire’s brooding verses, depressive to the point of paranoia. Strohl’s setting gives plenty of variety – pensive, angry, funereal – and Degout was terrifying from the word go, manipulating our emotions with micrometre control of dynamics and showing an extraordinary ability to develop tonal contours within a note. It was the highlight of the evening.

To close the first half, Philippe Jaroussky was entrusted with the newly commissioned piece, Lise Borel’s Cinq Prières de feu. Alicia Gallienne’s poems are gentle, yearning love poetry and Borel gives them lyrical, expansive settings, bringing in a touch of many styles, folk, Middle eastern and others. Jaroussky brought all his vocal trademarks to the cycle: the crystal purity of the high notes, the glorious shape of a swell, the ability to contour both an individual note and a long line, the extraordinary feel for a melisma. Still, I found it hard to form a view of Borel’s settings because, like Dreisig, Jaroussky lacked clear enough diction; the results were beautiful but inconsequential.

The second half of the concert contained one more pair of songs, with Dreisig singing two paeans to the night by Pauline Viardot, La Nuit ! and Die Sterne. The settings are pastoral and vibrant, with lovely cello and violin parts filling in between the voice. And while Dreisig’s French diction disappointed me, her German diction was spot on, turning Die Sterne into a real treat.

The other three pieces were instrumental. Charlotte Sohy’s Piano Trio in A minor disappointed. It flows readily enough but not in a direction that I could follow, becoming rather frenetic. Mel Bonis’ Fantaisie-Septuor contained more invention, but once again, it was unconvincing. The highlight, however, was Germaine Tailleferre’s Fantasy for string quartet and piano, played by the Modigliani Quartet and Marie-Josèphe Jude. Expertly giving each other space, the Modiglianis and Jude grabbed me from the outset and navigated the ebb and flow of Tailleferre’s music with a continued sense of purpose and balance.

A stash of hidden gems? Partly. Strohl’s Baudelaire settings and Tailleferre’s quintet were both superb, works that I have no hesitation in wanting to hear again. The other chamber pieces struck me as competent but nothing more. And having now heard Viardot’s music for the second time (after her gloriously entertaining Cendrillon), she is now firmly on my list of “unjustly neglected”.