L’Invitation au Voyage (1)

L’invitation au voyage
Romance de Mignon
Chanson triste
Au pays où se fait la guerre
Élégie, Op.24
Sonata for cello and piano in D minor
Cello Sonata

Susan Bickley (mezzo-soprano)
Thomas Carroll (cello)
Paul Turner (piano)

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 21 April, 2006
Venue: St John's, Smith Square, London

The 17 songs of Henri Duparc (1848-1933) are not only his main creative legacy, but also a highpoint of nineteenth-century song as a whole. Often encountered in vocal recitals, their embodiment of Wagnerian inheritance, while also anticipating the classical impulse that only came to the fore in a later French generation, is well suited to programming in a concert of vocal and instrumental music such as here – the first of three devised by the pianist Paul Turner to include all of Duparc’s songs.

It opened with the six songs that are best suited to female voice, here the vibrant mezzo of Susan Bickley. She brought a sensuous longing to Baudelaire’s “L’invitation au voyage”, and caught the pensive melancholy of Moore’s “Élégie”. A little too impetuous during the later stages of Gautier’s “Lamento”, and missing the last degree of nostalgic repose in Wilder’s paraphrase of Goethe’s immortal “Romance de Mignon”, she was responsive to the bittersweet regret of “Chanson triste” and plumbed the fatalistic depths drawn from Gautier’s “Au pays où se fait la guerre” – arguably the finest ‘chanson’ of its era.

For his part, Turner offered accompaniment of a high order – Duparc’s often intricate piano writing rendered with exemplary clarity and poise, even if dynamic contrast was effectively neutered in the enveloping St John’s acoustic. He was equally attuned to the dense chords of Wagner’s “Wesendonck-Lieder” (1856), with Bickley at her best in the two ‘studies’ for “Tristan und Isolde” – the careworn resignation of ‘Im Treibhaus’ (an imaginative poem that belies the amateurishness levelled atMathilde Wesendonck’s verse), and suffused ecstasy of ‘Träume’. If the other three songs sounded a little too strenuous to be wholly convincing, the cogency of the cycle as a whole was never in doubt.

The programme otherwise consisted of Fauré’s understated Élégie and two cello sonatas written a generation apart. That by Debussy (1915) is a masterpiece of lucidity and formal condensation, and Thomas Carroll certainly had the measure of the restrained yearning that informs the ‘Prologue’. Thelightening changes of mood characterising ‘Sérénade’ were a little calculated, though both here and in a headlong ‘Final’, Carroll’s incisiveness carried him through. Not so the Poulenc (1948), which only really convinced in the limpid warmth of ‘Cavatine’. Elsewhere, Carroll’s often pinched tone and variable intonation gave scant pleasure in what is among the most appealing of Poulenc’s sonatas: a pity, as he is clearly a gifted musician.

Even so, this was the only serious blemish on a rewarding recital, in which Turner demonstrated skill and discernment both as a pianist and as a programme planner. And, in placing Duparc’s often elusive songs within an informed and thought-provoking context, the present concert more than fulfilled its purpose – as, one hopes, will the remaining two recitals in this enterprising and very welcome series.

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