Sunday 6 January 2013

Graham Johnson, Lucy Crowe and Christopher Maltman at Wigmore Hall

In the shadow of the Opéra

Lucy Crowe, Graham Johnson, Christopher Maltman
Lucy Crowe, Graham Johnson and Christopher Maltman
Describing the rationale behind ‘In the shadow of the Opéra’ Graham Johnson explained, “Every French composer of the nineteenth century dreamed of success at the Opéra”, but that “songs were not taken that seriously, however beautiful”.  Last night’s performance (4 January 2013) at the Wigmore Hall including songs by thirty French composers, and one Englishman, aimed to lay waste to that complaint. 

The concert was split into four sections: ‘On Wings of Song – Love in flight’; ‘Melodies or Arias?’; ‘Vers le Sud – Exoticisms’; and ‘Seascapes and Landscapes’. Each had its own feel, and brought to light unfamiliar songs by well loved composers and poets. 

The singers Lucy Crowe and Christopher Maltman were supportively accompanied by Graham Johnson, a staunch devotee of these songs.

‘Love in flight’ took a distinctly aerial look at love and sacrifice. Christopher began with Charles Gounod’s (1818-1893) Tombez mes ailes, where passionate love tears off its wings and transforms into love for a child. This was followed by Lucy singing a beautifully controlled and poignant Au rossignol and Christopher bringing humour and irony to George Bizet’s (1838-1875) La Coccinelle. Jules Massenet’s (1842-1912) Le sais-tu? continued the light-hearted mood. This set was completed by two much sadder songs: Lucien Hillemacher’s Villanelle (1860-1909) and Raynaldo Hahn’s (1874-1947) Si mes vers avaient des ailes. The Hillemacher brothers were prolific opera composers but this setting of a 16th century poem by Jean Passerat gave Christopher a chance to demonstrate a delicate touch of ornamentation and creamy vocal texture.

Both singers were able to let their hair down a little in the second set of songs. ‘Melodies or Arias?’ was much more operatic and obsessive in flavour. Although Madrigal by Théodore Dubois (1837-1924) bridged between the sets by beginning mournfully, it settled into a darker mood and linked into passionate renditions of Fleur Jetée and La Chanson du pêcheur by Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924). The contrasting style of Apparition by Claude Debussy (1862-1918), which allowed Lucy to show off her vocal range and control, also showcased the subtle musicianship of Graham at the piano. The final song in this set was a nicely balanced duet (trio): Horace and Lydie by Massenet.

‘Vers le Sud – Exoticisms’ began with the definitely cheesy Mina by Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864). Meyerbeer was a German born composer who became an important person in the French operatic scene but this song seemed overworked with a skipping accompaniment (waves?) compared to the first half. It did however work well as a lead into the Moorish bolero of Zaïde by Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) and Maid of Athens by Gounod. Le Nil by Xavier Leroux (1863-1919) had a delicious accompaniment which reminded me of The Snowman and drifted between Eastern dance and European starchiness. 

The last two pieces in this set were the Spanish Guitare by Eduard Lalo (1823-1892) and the Spanish-influenced Guitarers et mandolines by Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921). The Lalo was possibly my favourite in the concert – very simple, but very effective, while the Saint-Saëns was dextrously controlled through all the difficult ornamentation.

The final set ‘Seascapes and Landscapes’ began with the very slow and sedate Douce mer by Bizet, Les Berceaux by Fauré, and Eau printanière by Hahn. However the duet Viens! by Saint-Saëns livened up the wateriness. This fun song had a perfect blend of voices and piano and we were treated to a reprise of it as an encore.  

Lucy continued with another song by Debussy - Night of stars but the last song of the evening was the duet Joie by Massenet - an upbeat little number perfectly described by its opening lyrics, ‘A little bird hops and sings, sweet and charming joy!’ In fact this sentiment could be applied to the entire concert. These songs were all new to me but I was charmed by both Lucy and Christopher’s interpretations and the different styles they breathed into the songs making each an individual within the genre.

Graham Johnson is due to receive the Wigmore Medal later this year for his "tireless work for the song repertoire throughout the world over many decades".
review by Hilary Glover

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