Friday 12 April 2013

Veronique Gens and Julius Drake in Duparc, Poulenc, Gounod and Debussy at Temple Song

Veronique Gens © M. Ribes & A. Vo Van Tao Virgin Classics
Veronique Gens does not make that many appearances in the UK so it was a particular pleasure to encounter her recital of French song as part of Temple Music's Temple Song 2013. Her recital, with Julius Drake at the piano, in Middle Temple Hall on Thursday 12 April  including eight songs by Henri Duparc (nearly half of his surviving output, plus two of Claude Debussy's earliest songs, four by Charles Gounod and concluded with a group of songs by Francis Poulenc including Banalites. Inner Temple Hall with its relatively intimate atmosphere and warm acoustic was the perfect setting to encounter an artist as communicative as Gens.

It is always a particular delight to hear French song performed by Francophone artists, and throughout the recital you were aware of Gens making the words, the poetry, as important as the music, without ever compromising the musical line. Highly communicative, you almost did not need the words. The description stylish, civilised, elegant, expressive, infinitely fascinating and mysterious could well apply both to the French song repertoire and to Gens as a performer.

Gens and Drake opened with Duparc's L'invitation au voyage, Drake's piano shimmering whilst Gens caressed the vocal line in a voice which, whilst not well-upholstered in tone, was supple and flexible. The repeated Lux, calme et volupte were infinitely promising and infinitely mysterious, quite magical. Romance de Mignon, one of the earliest Duparc songs in the programme, was not highly regarded by the composer and he never revised it. It has a relatively simple vocal line, but Gens made of it something so expressive with a glorious climax. Au pays ou se fait la guerre was written at the time of the Franco-Prussian war in 1869-70, it opens simply as a sad and haunting ballad, but in the middle section Gens fined her tone right down, singing with suppleness and subtlety as the poet dreams of those things which might never come back again. The final verse, with the heightened expectation and sad conclusion, was full of passion, sung with vivid intensity. And finally in this group Phidyle received a fascinating and magical performance from both performers, conjuring the delights and somnolence of summer, the quickening pule of passion and promise.

The songs by Gounod were an important turning point in the history of French song. A great admirer of Schubert's songs, Gounod combined good poetry with musical settings which were far more sophisticated than those of his predecessors. O ma belle rebelle to a poem by a 16th century poet has an accompaniment that deliberately invokes a period lute playing, with a brisk but elegant accompaniment. The vocal line is not elaborate, but Gens made it stylish and charming, bringing out the period feel and coping brilliantly with the tumble of words. Prends garde sets a free translation of a poem from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. It was rather a delight, with Gens giving a nicely pointed delivery, varying her tone imaginatively as the two different points of view alternate (between the young man who is enchanted by the maiden, and the personage warning him of her dangers). Ou voule-vous aller was the earliest of the lyrics sung, dating from 1839 and setting a text by Theophile Gautier. With opening chords that evoke the bag-pipe and a dance-line tune with a lovely expressive melisma on La voice ouvre son aile (the sail is billowing), this was entrancing and certainly Gens and Drake could seduce one into running away. Finally, the lovely Serenade, strophic, sung to a danceable tune with beautiful tone.

Part one concluded with two of Debussy's earliest songs, Nuit d'etoiles and Fleur des bles. These two might have less formal word-setting with a flexible and free line but they are still melodic and give only hints of the later Debussy. Gens performances were full of charm and nicely flexible of line, bringing out the songs subtle delight.

Gens having changed her elegant black dress for an equally elegant red one, part two opened with four more Duparc songs. Extase was rather dark, simple but very beautiful with Drake conjuring the lush accompanying harmonies and Gens making the song not a little erotic. (As the composer intended). Lamento was rather austerely beautiful with Gens fining her tone right down at the end of the second verse, and Drake bringing out the dark complexities underneath the dramatic final verse. Soupir had a sparse but expressively chromatic, and rather intense, piano part. The expressive, but not elaborate, vocal line enable Gens to bring out the quality of Sully Prudhomme's poetry. She made the plain vocal line count, with the final verse bleakly intense with the pain of unrequited love. Finally, Chanson triste, another early Duparc song and one that it is still a delight. Over Drake's rippling piano, Gens sang with a tone which was slimmer, finer and less self-indulgent than some in this song, but which she made very expressive, rising to vivid passion in the climax.

Poulenc's song cycle Banalites, setting poems by Guillaume Apollinaire, dates from 1940. It is not strictly a cycle, there is no connection between each of the songs but instead Poulenc creates a highly satisfying group by varying the different styles of poem and song. Chanson d'Orkenise saw Gens bringing out the song's narrative story telling, with its folksong like atmosphere, with great tenderness in the final verses. Hotel by contrast explored slow, deep ecstasy; lovely piano chords supported the thinnest of melodic lines, made expressive and a bit naughty by Gens. There was more narrative in Fagnes de Wallonie, where Gens made the rapid fire words a complete story telling delight. Voyage a Paris is perhaps the best known of the group, a complete charmer, sung with a lovely smile in the voice.  The last song, Sanglots, is the darkest. Haunting, with hints of the exotic, entirely serious but not a little seductive too, with fascinating melody which Drake and Gens caught in a moving performance.

The recital ended with a further group of Poulenc songs. Montparnasse is another Apollinaire setting which Poulenc took great care over. The haunting melody, with its bittersweet delight, was sung by Gens on a thread of voice with superbly expressive words and a charming insouciant smile in the voice. Hyde Park saw Poulenc hinting a jazz in the piano accompaniment with its witty edge. Gens brought out the story telling and here, as elsewhere in her Poulenc performances, impressed with the way she could turn on a pin when expressing the varied emotions in these quick-witted songs.

Finally, an elegant haunting waltz, les chamins de l'amour written for a play by Jean Anouilh and first sung by Yvonne Printemps. Quite magical.

As an encore we were treated to an elegantly expressive performance of Reynaldo Hahn's A Chloris.

Gens will be returning to the UK in August 2013 when she giving a recital of French song at the Edinburgh Festival and she will be singing Donna Elvira in the Royal Opera House's new production of Don Giovanni in the new year. She sings her first Dialogues des Carmelites at the Theatre des Champs Elysees in Paris (with a cast that includes Patricia Petibon, Sophie Koch and Rosalind Plowright) in Autumn 2013.

Elsewhere on this blog:

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