Clair de lune, Op.46/2; Prison, Op.83/1; Les berceaux, Op.23/1; Cinq mélodies de Venise, Op.58
L’invitation au voyage; Le manoir de Rosamonde; La vague et la cloche; Phidylé
Don Quichotte à Dulcinée
Le promenoir des deux amants; Trois mélodies de Paul Verlaine
Christopher Maltman (baritone) & Julius Drake (piano)
Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson
Reviewed: 29 April, 2008
Venue: Middle Temple Hall, London
I was anticipating this recital originally as my last chance to say farewell to one of the greatest operatic and concert artists of the past 40 years, the Belgian bass-baritone José van Dam. As he is 67 it was always likely that the coup which the Temple Festival had pulled off in acquiring his services for a recital of mixed French mélodies would ultimately be foiled, and so it proved. His replacement Christopher Maltman was able to take over almost the whole of the scheduled programme. He has constructed a large and wide-ranging song-repertoire and was untroubled by the last-minute substitution. Julius Drake, in addressing the audience before the start of the recital, told of his surprise at how readily Maltman had acquiesced in leaving the planned content virtually undisturbed.
The soloists, familiar with each other’s work and united in artistic purpose, began with Fauré songs from the composer’s early- and middle-periods. The challenge here is to maintain the great arching flow which propels the songs from start to finish in a constantly evolving structure while not neglecting the detail of both the vocal line and the piano accompaniment. A restrained “Clair de lune” was followed by a seamless transition in “Prison” from the initially simple appreciation of the sights that the poet Verlaine could enjoy from his prison cell (sky, tree, bird and bell) to the great outburst of self-reproach at his foolishness in having incurred the custodial sentence for shooting his lover Rimbaud. Maltman, a most expressive artist facially (and here gaunt of features) bared his teeth for the first time at this point.
The variety in the settings of the same poet’s five “Venetian” songs was impressively conveyed. The Watteau-esque atmosphere of ‘Mandoline’, with its depiction of insouciant figures caught in inconsequential activity in idyllic surroundings was a light-hearted introduction to the set. Drake was the centre of attention with his skilful instrumental imitations and echoes of the singer’s decorative phrases. ‘En sourdine’, a poem about the meeting of two illicit lovers, was in total contrast. Maltman took (for him) an unusually long pause before embarking on this song, determined to immerse himself in its mood. The studied inwardness of his approach was expressed in a perfectly sustained pianissimo line in the central verse “Ferme tes yeux à demi”. The partnership managed another change of direction in ‘Green’, the singer’s extrovert exhilaration and wide-ranging line fulfilling the composer’s instruction to convey breathlessness.
Maltman spoke with rather disarming sincerity between groups, even admitting, one assumes with tongue in cheek, to mistakes in the Fauré. There was no need to assure us how much he cherished the Duparc songs which followed – the performance was testimony to the two artists’ admiration. Again, the selection tested a range of musical and interpretative skills. One thought that the phrase “Luxe, calme et volupté” impossible to contain more sensuous relish than Maltman applied to it the first time round in “L’invitation au voyage”, only for him to squeeze out even more intensity at its second appearance. In “Le manoir de Rosamonde” I normally find my ear being drawn more to the hammering dotted figures in the piano but here it was the voice which stood out for its pointing of the words and its colouring of mood, sarcasm in the second quatrain followed by self-pity. After a dramatic “La vague et la cloche”, “Phidylé” was a study in varying moods: sultry and oppressive in the first two stanzas, lightening markedly in the third before the blaze of sunlight which illuminates the poet’s lover’s face completed the verbal narrative. Then, magically, in a postlude of Schumannesque proportions, the pianist provided his resolution.
The only change of composer from van Dam’s programme was the replacement of Ibert’s Don Quichotte songs by Ravel’s “Don Quichotte à Dulcinée”. Maltman ventured some daringly soft singing in ‘Chanson Romanesque’, while the mood of ‘Chanson epique’ was pious, still and monumental. With ‘Chanson à boire’ Maltman offered some welcome relief. He had dressed in an aggressively red shirt and tie combination but here at last was a comic song to break the grim ethos. The unsteady gait and maudlin mood of the drunken man were vividly depicted.
Maltman announced the Debussy group with unrestrained enthusiasm and proceeded to show a thorough grasp of the unique world of these songs. In “Le promenoir des deux amants” he never rose above mezzo-piano, while in the second the high tessitura was negotiated with aplomb. Of the three Verlaine settings the dream-world created in “L’échelonnement des haies” lingers hauntingly in the memory, while throughout the crystalline quality of the piano parts in Drake’s hands were an additional joy.
The two artists let themselves go uninhibitedly in Poulenc’s “Chanson gaillardes”, the texts of some of which are bawdy in the extreme. Heavy demands are made on performers here. While clearly intended to shock with their setting of such lewd texts, some of the songs constitute pastiches of regular musical forms. The Bacchic couplets required Maltman to get his tongue round a text as demanding as any operatic patter song, while ‘Serenade’ takes the form of a romantic lyric. Poulenc’s mordent humour is focused in some cases on the endings of the songs. Drake looked startled that the Drinking song had ended and Maltman savoured to the full the innuendo of the reference to a candle in ‘L’offrande’: never can the utterance of the isolated syllable “Ah!” have carried such an explicitly sexual connotation as at the conclusion of this song!
The singer left nothing to regret in his enunciation of the French texts: not a single vowel sound was anglicised nor a phrase anything but idiomatically and naturally delivered. This was a rewarding recital in luxurious and historic surroundings, by a constantly developing exponent of Art-Song, which was completed with Reynaldo Hahn’s “A Chloris” as an encore.