Une rare émotion – Bernarda Fink at Wigmore Hall – The songs of Maurice Ravel and his circle

Cinq mélodies populaires grecques
Une flûte invisible
Chansons de Bilitis
Chansons madécasses
Trois mélodies de Paul Verlaine
Les roses d’Ispahan; Arpège; Le parfum impérissable; Fleur jetée

Bernarda Fink (mezzo-soprano) & Christopher Glynn (piano) with Adam Walker (flute) and Marie Bitlloch (cello)

Reviewed by: Mark Valencia

Reviewed: 14 December, 2011
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Bernarda FinkIt was gourmet night at Wigmore Hall when Bernarda Fink opened her connoisseur’s selection box. In the company of three expert instrumentalists, the Argentinean mezzo’s succulent assortment of the finest French melodies blended familiar fare (Massenet’s Élégie, three of Debussy’s Verlaine settings) with a range of complementary flavours such as a charming miniature by Saint-Saëns and a handful of gems from Fauré’s byways.

Fink’s programme included all three of Ravel’s exotic song-cycles. Cinq mélodies populaires grecques opened the recital in lively style; the first song, ‘Le réveil de la mariée’ (The bride’s awakening), as tingly as a splash of cool water on a hot morning. The singer’s voice has warmth as clear as a Mediterranean sky, and she colours text with a subtle, seductive beauty. She relaxed into the melismatic, Canteloube-style opening of ‘Chanson des cueilleuses de lentisques’ (Song of the lentisk gatherers), yet by the end of this haunting song a startling intensity had become apparent.

The vivid and variegated Chansons madécasses (Madagascan songs) – with piano, flute and cello –proved to be something of a showcase for Fink’s vocal palette and interpretational range. She found shades of Barber and Sondheim in the gently erotic ‘Nahandove’, then drew on powerful vocal reserves for the angry ‘Aoua!’ before toying playfully with ‘Il est doux’ (It is sweet), a languid, gently misogynistic song, its pay-off line set by Ravel in a way that recalls the final bars of his opera, L’Enfant et les sortilèges.

In Shéhérazade, through no fault of the excellent Christopher Glynn, the absence of Ravel’s rich scoring was keenly felt. Yet the pared-down accompaniment (Adam Walker added instrumental flourishes for ‘La flûte enchantée’) did allow Fink to vary the pace of her delivery more than she would have done with an orchestral juggernaut behind her – at the words “Mystérieuse et solitaire” in the opening song, ‘Asie’ – and the limpidity of the piano somehow lent an attractive naïveté to the erotic promise of ‘L’indifférent’.

Amid so many delights, not least four immaculately-performed Fauré songs, the evening’s highlight was a fervent account of Chansons de Bilitis, a cluster of songs by Debussy whose poetic-prose style so clearly anticipates the world of his opera, Pelléas et Mélisande. Fink’s golden timbre was at its most irresistible here, not least in the sexually-charged second song, ‘La chevelure’. (It is chastening to think how comfortable the French poets of a century ago were in depicting carnal delight – at a time when buttoned-up Anglo-Saxon rhymesters were still rhapsodising about biers and hillsides.)

The encore, Poulenc’s Prière pour paix (Prayer for peace), was given in a stylish arrangement by Christopher Glynn for these three instruments. At the close of a recital that had favoured her higher register, it provided the singer with the perfect envoi: a sustained dip into one of the truest mezzo ranges currently to be heard – sonorous, sweet and dead-centre in its accuracy.

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