Sometimes I'm sure that I paid Guillaume Apollinaire's bar tabs in my past life - so clearly does his poetry speak to me. But for a wider Philadelphia public, the forever modern French-language poet (1880-1918) became a particularly immediate presence in Sandrine Piau's Tuesday recital presented by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society.

She purposefully re-ordered her final set of Francis Poulenc songs, replacing the feel-good charmer "Les Chemins de l'amour" that was to end the concert with "Sanglots," an Apollinaire-based song that felt like a plea for social responsibility, with references to emigrants and persons marginalized by illness: "We know that within us, many people breathe, who came from afar and are united behind our brows."

Nothing specific was mentioned when pianist Susan Manoff introduced the song to the full Perelman Theater. But here was an instance of how classical music can be meaningfully shaded by whatever the current moment has to offer - and thus never becomes redundant, especially when the messengers are as cultivated as Piau and Manoff.

The concert - which was a rare Piau appearance in this country - went beyond basic expectations of excellent singing and charming presentation. Singers spend their adult lives with German masters such as Franz Schubert. But how many settle in with Claude Debussy and Francis Poulenc the way Piau has? At age 51, she's a captivating presence who seems to physically waft to the emotional winds of whatever she is singing.

Her starting point is the language, the meaning of which dictates virtually all musical decisions. That was immediately apparent in her opening set of songs by Ernest Chausson, with the kind of flexible tempos that made her singing feel conversational. In more subtle moments, she also projected the language and its meaning without over-egging the verse. In doing so, she left space for your own imagination to participate in whatever meaning was possible in its marriage to the music at hand, which pianist Manoff played with a strong pulse.

Based around the theme of dreams, the program wasn't entirely French. A Felix Mendelssohn set showed the composer of A Midsummer Night's Dream reveling in devilish nocturnal imagery. Less fortunately, early Richard Strauss songs compared women to flowers but showed this German composer using his typically saturated harmonies to somewhat predictably French ends  in the song "Waterlily."

Some dreamy, early-period Alban Berg songs fit well into this scheme. But the concert's centerpiece was a Debussy set - including songs like "Zephyr" and "Beau Soir" - with Piau giving every phrase particular buoyance and the words succinct but detailed treatment, enabled partly by great control of vibrato. Piau made her name on baroque opera, which singers tend to cycle out of in middle age. Piau always had much to offer song repertoire. Now she's at a place where possibly nobody sings it better.