Susan Graham & Malcolm Martineau

Chanson d’avril
Dans les ruines d’une abbaye
Où voulez-vous aller?
Danse macabre
Les cigales
Harmonie du soir
Les papillons
Chère nuit
Au pays où se fait la guerre
Le paon
Le corbeau et le renard
Réponse d’une épouse sage
La fiancée perdue
Colloque sentimental
Le Chapelier
Trois chansons de la Petite Sirène
La souris d’Angleterre
La Dame de Monte Carlo

Susan Graham (mezzo-soprano) & Malcolm Martineau (paino)

Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson

Reviewed: 9 February, 2008
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Susan GrahamIn the vocal world (and doubtless the instrumental one too), certain artists will draw full houses whatever they sing. They also have the power to devise and have accepted programmes that would have managements looking askance at artists of perceived lesser stature were they to propose them. Susan Graham was able to bring a survey of French song that she has also performed in the United States and is taking to Europe. She enjoys an exalted status as an interpreter of French song, not least in France itself – witness her receipt of the Commandeur dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. Only her soprano counterpart Felicity Lott among Anglo-Saxon artists enjoys comparable respect in French vocal repertoire.

This was a programme not only entirely in French but also encompassing a wide range of mélodies (and extensions of that genre) from Gounod to Poulenc. What a challenge it was to choose in nearly every case a single song by each composer, Susan Graham thereby needing to clothe herself in fresh and distinctive garments every few minutes. Who else among contemporary singers in any repertoire would we feel confident of doing such an enterprise justice? It is a tribute to Malcolm Martineau’s status as pianist that one expects this versatility more readily of him.

It was something of a surprise that the pair neglected Berlioz, but the opening group had a consistency of relative conventionalism that Berlioz’s radicalism would have disrupted. A brisk start was made with Bizet’s “Chanson d’avril”, showing the emergence of mélodie from its uncomplicated predecessor, the Romance, both artists sharing the joy of its alternating exchanges and doublings of melodic line.

From invigorating spring sunlight to the power of night was a large step and to continue with a song by (Belgian) César Franck was an unexpected but rewarding move. The hints of Wagner in the harmony and the change to the major key when the poet surrenders to the healing effects of night represented the first magic moment of the evening, amplified by Graham’s pp entry in the third stanza, “O sainte nuit”.

The young Fauré was represented by “Dans les ruines d’une abbaye”, with no attempt to conceal the repetitiveness of the strophic form. Gounod’s “Où voulez-vous aller?” received a tongue-in-cheek performance, especially from the pianist, who added to the ironic opening discords and fragment of tune at the extreme top of the keyboard a very emphatic striking of the off-the-beat chords which complete each refrain.

Graham uses all her resources: stance, gesture and facial expression coalesce with a voice which has a natural glow and a musical intelligence which is always at the service of the music. Everything was nevertheless suitably unostentatious. She did not draw attention to either technical accomplishments or interpretative detail. If I refer to particular events it is not to contradict the above judgement: they did not obtrude but were entirely integral to the overall effect. The final cadence of the Gounod began forte and was diminished expertly to pianissimo. In the following song, Lalo’s “Guitare”, while the notes themselves are straightforward, her posture in the final lines laced the song with an enigmatic irony.

Malcolm Martineau. Photograph: Benjamin HarteMartineau was the more explicit, flamboyant interpreter. It was the diabolical frenzy of his attack in Saint-Saëns’s “Danse macabre” which took the attention for most of its duration, though the two artists joined to throw off the final ironic utterance, she with the words, he with a mocking perfect-cadence.

The second group mixed the conservative with the progressive. Chabrier’s “Les cigales” has an imaginative style which has been often remarked upon: the constant rumbling of the cicadas and the lead-in to each refrain, plus its witty postlude, offer much to the pianist but Graham also brought out the caustic humour so typical of this composer, as well as his enactment of drunkenness with the lurching rhythm of “grises de chanter ainsi” and of drowsiness at “verse le sommeil”. A strong case was thereby made for Chabrier being a very individualistic song-writer.

The rich solemnity of Paladilhe’s “Psyché” was in marked contrast: Graham was comfortable at both extremes of the song’s tessitura and engineered her crescendo at the close to reach its peak precisely at the key word “craint”. The early Debussy song to a Baudelaire text is a case of two soloists performing distinct parts. Graham’s appreciation of the subtly interwoven lines of prosody was impressive, as was her technical control in the concluding high thread of tone.

Her final offerings before the interval had operatic connections. Bachelet’s sole song to survive in the repertoire, composed for Melba, favoured by sopranos such as Claudia Muzio, Ninon Vallin and Lily Pons (and recorded in the 1950s by the lower-voiced Nan Merriman), may be frowned upon for its backward-looking romanticism but it fully earned its place in this collection. The voice creeps in after a piano introduction in a way reminiscent of Strauss’s “Morgen”. Graham was vocally daring at challenging points in the song: a hushed entry at the the first apostrophe to night, a high pianissimo in the phrase “Ah! descends et voile la terre de ton mystère” (strongly and warmly delivered in the reprise) and above all a sublime messa di voce in the little coda. To end the first half, she chose a more forthright theatrical declamation in the remnant of Duparc’s aborted operatic venture and the voice was fully up to its demands.

After this plethora of mellifluous singing, crispness of enunciation came into its own in the first group after the interval. The syllabic setting of “Le paon” by Ravel and the narrative of Caplet’s “La Fontaine fable” displayed Graham’s confidence in the French language, supported in the latter song by carefully considered physical enactment of the characters’ actions and attitudes. Martineau came again to the fore in the piano part’s manifold illustrations, while the hectic accompaniment to the first section of Messiaen’s “La fiancée perdue” showed once again his dexterity.

The fragmentation of French song as the twentieth century progressed was exhibited in the final selection. Fauré’s “Vocalise” took Graham quite deep into her chest register, while in Canteloube’s “Cradle Song” we journeyed into cross-over territory. Satie and Honegger continued the theme of childhood, both in epigrammatic style. Honegger’s three songs were each sharply differentiated, the first exploiting dissonance and the third sharply-defined rhythms, while the central lullaby of the mermaids had a markedly sensuous vocal line. Manuel Rosenthal’s ballad of the English mouse evoked audible amusement from the audience, who clearly appreciated the musical opportunism of its range of styles.

The formal programme was brought to a close by a real tour de force for the singer in Poulenc’s miniature monodrama and companion to “La voix humaine”. There were two encores: Hahn’s Bach pastiche “A Chloris” and an adaptation of Noel Coward’s “Let’s not be beastly to the Germans”.

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