Three Verlaine Songs (from Fêtes galantes)
Paradise, Sopot and Coda [World premiere]
Poèmes pour Mi
Claire Booth (soprano) & Ryan Wigglesworth (piano)
Mari Sakata (piano)
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 10 May, 2004
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London
A further instalment in the Park Lane Group’s Monday Platform series that has already seen an excellent concert by the Doric Quartet. The present recital featured contributions by artists already in the process of making their mark. None more so than Claire Booth – increasingly familiar on the UK scene, and heard to advantage this evening in three varied song collections.
Those by Debussy are taken from his Fêtes galantes series – lucid, sensuous songs which are among his earliest most characteristic music. Booth was fully at home here – not least in the quiet rapture of “Clair de Lune” (very different from the more familiar piano piece) – and in the intense ecstasy of Messiaen’s Poèmes pour Mi. An ecstasy that, inspired by the composer’s impending marriage, is leavened by an emotional earnestness such as makes the self-penned lyrics rather gauche reading (not that they were printed this evening). The music is a different story, and Booth brought palpable expressive frisson to such as the lengthy opening “Action de graces” and “Le Collier” – most perfectly poised of the cycle. Breath control in some of Messiaen’s serpentine vocal melodies was not flawless, though Booth’s French enunciation left little to be desired.
An undoubted asset was the attentive accompaniment of Ryan Wigglesworth, whose settings of poems by Craig Raine were judiciously placed between the French cycles. Stylish and subtle in their marriage of words and music, they evinced an attractive textural translucency – if, as yet, no especially individual creative voice, though the distanced poignancy of “Coda” achieved a resonance such as was keenly conveyed by Booth.
After the interval, Mari Sakata performed two very different works by two very different American contemporaries. Barber’s Excursions are among his most consciously American pieces, which may account for their lack of inhibition and sheer joie de vivre. Sakata played them with keen appreciation of how they link into subsequent American piano music (I can well imagine she has Rzewski’s Winsboro Cotton-Mill Blues in her repertoire, maybe even some Nancarrow transcriptions), and though her pedalling occasionally obscured harmonic clarity, her dexterity and control were rarely in doubt.
Such qualities helped her through the tougher challenge of Elliott Carter’s Piano Sonata. Sakata had a firm grasp of the modified sonata form, which underpins the first movement – doing justice to its imposing rhetoric and contrasting inwardness – and the second-movement fugue was impressively prepared. The fugue itself, however, was skittish rather than athletic, while the epilogue brought tranquillity but little inner repose. Most significantly, Sakata seemed to have only a tentative grasp of the harmonic resonance whereby Carter infers tonal interconnections without stating them through the actual notes: the Sonata lacking overall cohesion as a result. This was an engaging account, even so, and Sakata will hopefully give further performances of this piece, which is strangely overlooked in the context of 20th-century piano music.
Each half of the concert was greeted by a small but enthusiastic gathering of each artist’s friends and admirers. A pity that neither seemed much interested in the other – evinced, above all, by the wholesale exodus of Claire Booth’s fans at the interval. The real loser in such partisanship is the music: something those who consider themselves nominal ‘music-lovers’ would do well to consider.