Tuesday 12 February 2008

Susan Graham - concert review

There is a sense that, with an artist of the stature of Susan Graham, they can perform whatever and wherever they want and still get an audience. Judging by Saturday February 9th's performance at the Wigmore Hall, close communication with her audience is important to Graham. So it was not surprise that she was performing in the Wigmore Hall rather than a bigger venue such as the Barbican, which she could undoubtedly have filled.

Accompanied by Malcolm Martineau, she presented a programme which took few prisoners - an extended peregrination through French song from Gounod (Ou voulez-vous aller?, 1839) to Poulenc (La Dame de Montecarlo, 1961). In one sense the programme was unchallenging, the material was all attractive, well written and melodic. But there were few undoubted masterpieces and many excursions into the by ways of the repertoire. Much depended on the quality of the performance and the audience's willingness to follow Graham and Martineau, to make connections and pick up the threads between the works suggested by Gerald Larner's excellent programme notes.

There were eccentricities, neither Faure (2 songs, one a vocalise), nor Debussy (2 songs) nor Ravel (one song) were represented by examples of their greatest works.
Poulenc completed the journey with his scena La Dame do Montecarlo.

The programme was presented roughly chronologically. This meant that in the first half, a generous 12 songs from the 19th century, there were slightly too many attractive encore type pieces, such as Paladilhe's Psyche (popularised by Maggie Teyte and Grace Moore) or Bachelet's Chere nuit (written for Melba and popular with singers such as Nan Merriman). But Graham was on excellent form, caressing each item with her lovely voice, giving each song its own distinctive dramatic presentation. And in items like Debussy's Harmonie du Soir, giving much more.

For the 20th century group a welcome element of wit and cleverness crept into the songs. Few songs were quite as comfortable as their 19th century counterparts, even Ravel's La Paon, with its vivid depiction of the Peacock. Perhaps Graham tried a little to hard with Satie's Le Chapelier, where he combines of Rene Chalupt's poem about the Mad Hatter with a melody from Gounod's Mireille - surely the joke should be in understated here rather than over-done. But Honegger's Trois Chansons de la Petite Sirene were perfect.

For the 2nd half Graham and Martineau gave us 11 songs, quite a respectable content and I'm sure that everyone would have been happy if the concert finished there, many distinguished divas have got away with performing few songs in a recital. But Graham and Martineau gave us Poulenc's substantial La Dame de Montecarlo, a brilliant tour de force in conclusion.

But it was in pieces such as the Poulenc where Graham's glorious voice could almost be said to be something of a limitation, there were times when I wanted less voice and more word.

Having sung Hahn's Tyndaris during part 2, Graham and Martineau gave us his A Chloris as a further treat as an encore. Graham followed this with Noel Coward's song about the 'filthy' French. Here, as in the Poulenc, I wanted more word and less voice.

Graham was well supported by Malcolm Martineau, surely becoming one of our finest contemporary accompanists. Their recital was generously programmed, some 24 songs, and by exploring the byways of the French melodie, they enabled us to get to knwo some lesser known gems in stunning performances.

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