, July 2011
A short title sequence reminds us that Verbier is one of the world’s most famous ski resorts. This most satisfying recital was filmed at the sixteenth annual music festival that also takes place there.
Chanson d’avril makes a lovely opener, though in that delightful song, and in Franck’s more sombre Nocturne which follows, Miss Graham has not quite got into her stride. What is obvious though, right from the outset, is the warm complicity between the singer and her accompanist, and Malcolm Martineau’s immensely subtle and sensitive playing brings great pleasure throughout the recital. The third song is an adaptation of Saint-Saëns’ famous orchestral piece. The text uses peasants and barons, sex and death, to point up a moral of social equality! It’s light-hearted and, like all Saint-Saëns, well conceived both for the piano and the voice. Its placing here in the programme is a sign of the care the artists have taken to construct a programme both varied and balanced. They call it a “tasting menu”, referring to the fact that it is made up mainly of single songs by many different composers. One might think such a formula would be bitty and difficult to bring off. The songs are arranged skilfully, however, with sufficient link and contrast, both musically and by theme, to make a satisfying whole. I think even a well-informed lover of French song might find one or two new ones here. And the programme certainly pleases the Verbier audience.
“Les cigales chantent mieux que les violins”, or so Chabrier’s delightful song tells us, and see how delightfully Graham “plays” the piano postlude with her eyes, along with her excellent pianist. Duparc’s Au pays où se fait la guerre is a young woman’s passionate lament at the absence of her soldier lover whilst she is left alone to await his return. Ravel’s Le paon follows, and though we might be surprised now that the first performance of the cycle from which it is taken provoked a riot, we hear, nonetheless, something altogether new, both in the writing and the daring choice of text. Susan Graham brilliantly captures the mocking irony of this miniature masterpiece, as she does, even more so, in the Caplet song that follows. And this is perhaps the moment to say that her French—a horrible language for any singer other than a native French speaker—is so good that it’s a perverse pleasure to point out that she mispronounces the word “leçon” in this song.
Singer and pianist conjure up a suitably melancholy atmosphere in two songs dealing with unhappy love affairs, where the harmonic astringency of Roussel leads into some unmistakeable Debussy. After this, Fauré’s wordless song, written as an examination piece for the Paris Conservatoire, comes as something of a relief.
A short group of lighter songs follows, beginning with Honegger’s three-song cycle that, in spite of its minuscule duration, evokes a world of human emotion. Quite what the final “Song of the Pear” has to do with the mermaids in the other songs is something I’m still pondering, though. Manuel Rosenthal’s song about an unwelcome immigrant in Calais is a brilliant recital piece: singer and pianist lose no opportunity to act out its comic storyline. Miss Graham’s operatic experience has already been in evidence earlier in the recital, and she relies on it here, and even more in the final item of the programme. The excellent booklet note by Paula Kennedy quite rightly points out that Poulenc’s La Dame de Monte-Carlo is not really a song at all, more a short operatic scena. The character, female, aging, disappointed, fits Poulenc like a glove, and the use of irony and an unlikely setting to express serious and profound human issues is typical both of that composer and of much of modern French music. It is a fine piece and this performance of it is very moving. Reynaldo Hahn’s cool A Chloris, with echoes of Bach in the piano part, is a most effective encore.
The sung texts are in French and if you want to practise your French still further you can switch on the French subtitles. Otherwise, translations are provided for English, German or Japanese speaking viewers.
The recital is simply but effectively filmed, with no tricks. One particularly effective camera angle shows us Miss Graham from the side, whilst at the same time revealing her accompanist’s face.