French Song & Chamber Music at Wigmore Hall – plus a J. F. Brown premiere

La captive, Op.12
Le sylphe
Sonata for Cello and Piano
J. F. Brown
Songs of Nature and Farewell [Wigmore Hall commission: world premiere]
Un flûte invisible
Viens! Un flûte invisible soupier
Lydia, Op.4/2; Les roses d’Ispahan, Op.39/4; A prèsun rêve, Op.7/1; Mandoline, Op.58/1
Chansons madécasses

Rachel Nicholls & Ailish Tynan (sopranos), Emily Beynon (flute), Steven Isserlis (cello) & Connie Shih (piano)

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 3 November, 2011
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Steven Isserlis. Photograph: Tom MillerLast-minute changes saw an indisposed Lucy Crowe pull out of this recital, but the programme happily went ahead almost as scheduled. While not a specifically French preserve, the number of songs with instrumental components is greater than with any other European language. This concert provided a representative overview.

Rachel Nicholls took on the opening selection of Victor Hugo settings, bringing limpid eloquence to Berlioz’s La captive (1832) – with Steven Isserlis resourceful in a cello part originally conceived for guitar – then found a wholly unsentimental poise in Massenet’s one-famous Élégie (1881). César Franck’s slender output of song seems largely restricted to the 1840s, but Le sylphe is a highly evocative number which looks forward to the dreamy introspection of his mature choral and orchestral works – not least for a cello obbligato that complements the vocal line to haunting effect. What a pity Franck did not see fit to contribute to the genre later in life.

Then Isserlis and Connie Shih gave a persuasive account of the Cello Sonata that Poulenc laboured over from 1940 to 1948 – and that might never have been realised if not for prompting by Pierre Fournier – but which ranks among his most cohesive chamber works. The nonchalant understatement of the march-inflected Allegro is an admirable foil to the searching melancholy of the ‘Cavatine’ that follows, while the divertissement-like whimsy of the ‘Ballabile’ provides an offbeat scherzo prior to the weightier yet only outwardly serious manner of the finale.

The first half closed with a first outing for Songs of Nature and Farewell by James Francis Brown. These three settings of poems from a volume that Saint-Saëns published in 1890 confirm the latter as a competent though self-conscious author. Brown provides a deftly neo-classical treatment –invoking yet without submitting to pastiche – of ‘La chêne’, followed by an imaginative setting of ‘La Libellule’ which opens-out expressively during its affecting final verse. If ‘Adieu’ seemed less successful, this may have been because, as the ostensible climax of the sequence, it attempted to draw from Saint-Saëns’s rather effortful juxtaposition of reality and escape more than the words themselves could yield: that said, the often-impassioned vocal-line brought an impressive response from Nicholls; Isserlis and Shih joined by Emily Beynon in a luminous interplay which secured a pathos absent from the words alone.

Saint-Saëns as composer began the second half with a touching realisation of Hugo’s poem Un flûte invisible (1885). André Caplet achieved something far more personal and affecting in his 1924 treatment of what, despite a different title, is exactly the same text. Nicholls then made way for AilishTynan for a selection of mainly early songs by Fauré. Lydia (1870) is typical of these in its discreet sentiment and its understated emotion, qualities such as Les roses d’Ispahan (1884) widens into something more evocative and intangible. Après un rêve (1877) remains the most famous of all the composer’s songs, Tynan bringing out its wistful charm in full measure, whereas the relatively oblique humour of Mandolîne (1891) looks forward to the subtlety and poise typifying Fauré’s later vocal music. His songs rarely ‘come off’ given in groups as published, so a miscellany is welcome.

Tynan, Beynon, Isserlis and Shih then came together for a superb rendering of Chansons madécasses (1926) – the most searching and arguably the finest of all Ravel’s song-cycles, in which his hallmarks of vocal allure and instrumental fastidiousness are most tellingly combined. From the remote sensuousness of ‘Nahandove’, through the plangent outcry against colonialism of ‘Aoua!’, to the distilled profundity of ‘Il est doux’ – this is as near to perfection as the fusion of words and music gets. These performers did it full justice to complete a wide-ranging and imaginative programme which served to reinforce the innate musicality of the French language.

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