BBC New Generation Artist Ema Nikolovska and pianist Malcolm Martineau evoke Pauline Viardot’s salon for a lunchtime recital of music by the 19th-century composer and her dazzling friends and contemporaries

Già la note s’avvicina [attr. Roman Hoffstetter, arr. Pauline Viardot]
Five songs, Op.94 – IV: Sapphische Ode
Seven Songs, Op.48 – I: Der Gang zum Liebchen
Clara Schumann
Vergiftet sind meine Lieder
Comment, disaient-ils
Pauline Viardot
Six Songs of the 15th Century – I: Aimez-moi
Maria Malibran
La voix qui dit je t’aime
Manuel Garcia
Chansons espagnoles – VI: Es corridor [arr. Pauline Viardot]
Le prophète – Donnez pour une pauvre âme
Pauline Viardot
Le derneir sorcier – Coulez, gouttes fines
Two Songs, Op.4 – I: La chanson du pêcheur
Pauline Viardot
The Titi
My genius, my angel, my friend
Pauline Viardot
On Georgian Hills
12 Romances, Op.60 – X: At the window in the shadow
Six Mazurkas – IV: Zalotna [arr. Pauline Viardot]

Ema Nikolovska (mezzo-soprano) & Malcolm Martineau (piano)

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 6 September, 2021
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

For those with any knowledge of the history of great singing the name of Pauline Viardot (1821-1910) looms large. Contemporary accounts reveal her to have been one of the compelling singing actresses of her day; a polylingual mezzo-soprano with a massive range that clearly comfortably spanned well over two octaves. She was, however, far more important than that. She came from a musical family, was a skilled pianist (coached by Liszt) and composer, a celebrated, passionate and inspirational advocate for music and drama in the great salons of Europe, and a muse to many of the great writers, poets and composers of her time. She was a big personality who exuded charisma. The mezzo-soprano Ema Nikolovska had devised this programme as a whistle-stop taster tour across several countries where Viardot had successes. Clearly a polyglot herself, she gave some brief spoken notes about her ‘subject’ in the pauses between groups of songs, doing so with scholarly charm and evident enthusiasm. She was also ‘far more important than that’. Nikolovska is the possessor of a beautiful, versatile and technically assured instrument with gorgeous colours to it; it is reminiscent of, rather than similar to, that of the great Marilyn Horne. She has a winning and communicative persona. I don’t know if she is a gifted pianist too, but she had the ever sympathetic and virtuosic Malcolm Martineau providing far more than just support.

The recital started with a Viardot arrangement of a Haydn String Quartet for voice that allows the vocalist to demonstrate their classical singing credentials and style; Viardot herself was a notable interpreter of Gluck’s Orfeo. Nikolovska’s reading was a generous essay of style and sense of line.  Brahms brought us quickly into the romantic era. His Sapphische Ode was tellingly delivered – soft pianissimos at the start of the second stanza, and clever, sparing use of vibrato in the final line. Martineau’s limpid accompaniment in Der Gang zum Liebchen was remarkable. Viardot was the first performer of Brahms’s Alto Rhapsody. Brahms obviously brings links to Clara Schumann, and the two songs of hers in the recital brought more drama. Nikolovska’s colouring of the final word, “verdorben”, left a strong impression, as did her gravity-defying vocal leap in the penultimate verse of Lorelei. The Liszt songs engendered more expressionist qualities from the duo.

Then we had some Viardot and her family. As a composer she left several chamber-scale operas and over 200 songs, many of which demonstrate her understanding of both the keyboard and the voice.  Her playfully rhythmic and technically challenging arrangement of her brother Manuel García’s Es corredor was a delightful Hispanic confection. The inclusion of a song by her short-lived but famous elder sister, the singer Maria Malibran, was a clever inclusion.

Viardot inspired many operatic composers including Gounod, Saint-Saëns and Berlioz, but it was Meyerbeer’s nowadays rather neglected output that saw her most notable personal creations and assumptions. These included the role of Valentine in Les Huguenots and particularly the role of Fidès in Le prophète. In ‘Donnez, donnez…’, a Horne favourite, Nikolovska gave a contained yet dramatic reading that made one eager to see her on the dramatic stage.

Viardot had a long relationship with the poet / writer Ivan Turgenev and set some of his words to music. Le dernier sorcier was an exemplar here, particularly allowing the singer to dazzle in a virtuosic cadenza at the end. Martineau shone in the accompaniment of On Georgian Hills and joined with Nikolovska in the exuberant Viardot arrangement of a Chopin Mazurka – Zalotna – bringing the recital to a winning close and leaving one with the thought that Viardot’s song output should be recorded in its entirety with these artists taking on a lion’s share. In the encore – Viardot’s Haí Lulí – the ladies had the final words.

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