Saint-Saëns Festival – Songs

Songs by Saint-Saëns, Wagner, Liszt, Fauré and Poulenc

Lucy Crowe (soprano)
Colin Balzer (tenor)
François Le Roux (baritone)
Graham Johnson (piano)

Reviewed by: William Yeoman

Reviewed: 27 April, 2004
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

As part of the ongoing “Saint-Saëns Festival”, the Wigmore Hall audience was treated to an evening of the master’s mélodies, courtesy of that tireless champion of song, Graham Johnson, and three outstanding singers: Lucy Crowe, noted recitalist and winner of the 2004 Friends of the Royal Academy of Music Wigmore Award; tenor Colin Balzer, second-prize winner in the 2003 Wigmore Hall International Song Competition; and that wonderful exponent of French song, the baritone François Le Roux, who has recorded a disc of Saint-Saëns’s songs together with Graham Johnson for Hyperion.

The programme, entitled “Camille Saint-Saëns: Master of Disguises” (referring to Saint-Saëns’s supposed anonymity and protean compositional technique) adopted a loose biographical structure organised into six sections with Johnson relating to the audience significant biographical and musical details between each song, the singers reading quotes from various musical and familial personalities, thus mirroring the form of Johnson’s copiously detailed booklet notes for his numerous recordings; indeed, the structure of this recital seems to have been modelled on the booklet essay for the aforementioned Hyperion disc.

“Prodigious Youth” comprised the early songs Guitare, Rêverie and Le pas d’armes du roi Jean, all performed by Le Roux (Crowe making a minor contribution with the women’s exhortations to the men in Guitare). These songs demonstrate both Saint-Saëns’s already consummate skill as a songwriter (he wrote his first when he was just five-and-a-half!) and his assimilation of the German Lied tradition, particularly Schubert. Le Roux likewise demonstrated his mastery of this repertoire, particularly in the picaresque ‘Tournament of King John’, where his colourful vocal inflections were matched by his perfectly appropriate facial and bodily gestures.

“Influences: Schubert, Liszt and Wagner” illustrated further Saint-Saëns’s debt to the German tradition, with Johnson prefacing an extract from La feuille de peuplier with the introduction to a song from Schubert’s Winterreise and following a short extract from one of Wagner’s Hugo settings with two of Saint-Saëns’s own Hugo settings: L’Attente and La cloche. In the former, Lucy Crowe demonstrated great beauty of tone but lacked a little in clarity of enunciation; in the latter, Colin Balzer’s convincing tenor and command of vocal colour was marred only by his all-too-prominent Canadian accent. It was interesting, too, to note hints of things to come in La cloche, with its introduction sounding like a Debussy Prélude and its melody strangely Fauré-like (Fauré, of course, being Saint-Saëns’s most famous and beloved pupil).

“The Mélodie Tradition and Beyond” consisted of six contrasted songs: Viens!, a delightful duet written for the famed mezzo Pauline Viardot and Saint-Saëns himself to sing; the beautifully atmospheric Soirée en mer, performed with great subtlety by Balzer; the amusing setting of Hugo’s La coccinelle (Le Roux showed a great comic touch here, particularly with the trill in the final line, “Creatures belong to our good Lord, but only men behave like cretins”); Si vous n’avez rien à me dire with its Schumannesque interludes and postlude performed with great sensitivity by Johnson; the exciting La brise (Mélodies persanes) with its oriental melismas and extreme dynamics; and Tournoiement (Songe d’opium) from the same collection, featuring a toccata-like accompaniment and stormy, Lisztian middle section.

“Failed Husband and Successful Teacher”, referring to his disastrous marriage to the nineteen-year-old Marie-Laure-Émile Truffot (whom he left abruptly following the death of their two children) and to the skills imparted to his gifted student Gabriel Fauré, began with a setting of an anonymous Spanish poem El desdichado; this was a very effective trio, full of flamenco effects both in the accompaniment and in the Phrygian flavour of the final verse. The singers’ voices blended remarkably well while preserving their individual colours. The famous Danse macabre (from which stemmed the eponymous tone poem of 1874) followed, and again Le Roux demonstrated his gift for bathos and colouration; likewise with the final song of the set, La cigale et la fourmi. Between these two songs came a charming setting of an English poem by Horace Lennard, Cherry Tree Farm, sung with fine attention to line but little to clear enunciation by Lucy Crowe, and Fauré’s sublimely beautiful Nell sung by Colin Balzer.

“The World Celebrity” gave us a snapshot of the colourful realm of the peripatetic composer/performer, free from the bonds of marriage and a domineering mother (with whom Saint-Saëns went back to live), sending musical postcards to his publishers in Paris from Spain, Portugal, Italy, Algeria and Egypt. Colin Balzer joyfully regaled us with Hugo’s Suzette et Suzon, set as a bergerette full of insouciant charm by the then 53-year-old composer; this was followed by Guitares et mandolines, one of Saint-Saëns’s settings of his own verse; the strums and plucks of the accompaniment were here relished by Johnson, caressing Lucy Crowe’s flamenco-inflected phrases with abandon. Last in the set was an appropriately languorous performance of Saint-Saëns’s only Verlaine setting, Le vent dans le plaine, a song which clearly demonstrates what the teacher learned from his pupil Fauré.

Finally, “Rage and the Dying of the Light” found the elderly (though still prolific) composer as both a reactionary and fierce nationalist. Poulenc’s setting of Apollinaire’s La carpe (demonstrating the ‘new music’ so disliked by the old master) and Saint-Saëns’s setting of Villanelle by Vauquelin de la Fresnaye were sung by Lucy Crowe, interspersed by Colin Balzer’s performance of another English text, this time Tis better so by Frank Tannehill – and again the Canadian accent was a little too prominent, despite the fine singing. The recital came to a close with two settings by Saint-Saëns that could have been written by Poulenc himself: Grasselette et Maigrelette (Pierre de Ronsard) and La Sérénité (Marie Barbier).

I’m not too sure about this lecture-cum-performance presentation for a song recital: after a while it really did begin to feel like a lecture-demonstration, the songs seemingly present only to highlight a biographical detail rather than the biographical information illuminating the songs. And, unlike opera which successfully mixes spoken dialogue with song, the music never really had a chance to work its magic, as the commentary, following as it did each item, wrenched us back into the world of the prosaic. Perhaps it might have been better to at least present the songs in brackets of at least three. The singing was wonderful, particularly from Le Roux, and Johnson’s accompaniment throughout displayed a depth of feeling for the texts that can only come from a combination of genuine passion and broad scholarship.

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