Monday 2 March 2015

Marie-Nicole Lemieux and Roger Vignoles at the Wigmore Hall

Marie-Nicole Lemieux - photo credit Denis Rouvre
Marie-Nicole Lemieux - photo credit Denis Rouvre
Faure, Lekeu, Hahn, Koechlin, Debussy, Duparc; Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Roger Vignoles
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 28 2015
Star rating: 5.0

Stylish and idiomatic performances of an imaginative programme of French song

The French-Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux and pianist Roger Vignoles gave a recital of French song at the Wigmore Hall on Friday 27 February 2015. Their programme had the poetry of Paul Verlaine running through it, though not in a dogmatic manner. They started with Gabriel Faure's Cinq melodies 'de Venise', followed by Trois Poemes by Guillaume Lekeu, and a group of songs by Reynaldo Hahn. Then a group by Charles Koechlin, followed by Claude Debussy's Fetes galantes Book II and finally a group of songs by Henri Duparc.

Francophone singers who perform French song in recital are not commonplace and it was a pleasure to welcome Lemieux with her rich-toned yet flexible voice, lovely ease of delivery and a simply wonderful feeling for singing French poetry. Her performance clearly reflected the suppleness which comes of singing so much baroque repertoire besides later music. There is an expressive vibrato which was never intrusive. And she sings French which is both comprehensible and sounds good, we hardly needed the texts to follow the songs and that is exactly as it should be.

She and Vignoles started with Cinq melodies 'de Venise' by Gabriel Faure (1845-1924), settings of five poems by Verlaine which Faure commenced whilst in Venice in 1891. The five include some of Faure's best known, but interestingly the complete group is heard more rarely. Evidently Verlaine did not rate Faure's settings of his verse, preferring those of Reynaldo Hahn, but the songs are some of Faure's most sophisticated. Mandoline showed Lemieux to be full of characterful vitality, yet open to the work's flowing line and the essential simplicity which is at the heart of much Faure. Quite simply, she did not try too hard, and as a result reaped great rewards, finely partners by the complexity of Vignoles piano. All in all, a delight to begin the recital.

En sourdine (Muted) had a long shapely melody line with a rippling piano, resulting in a seductive musicality with the magical ending depicting the nightingale in the piano. Green was highly impulsive, combining moments of passion with some delicacy too. A Clymene is the song from the group which is rarely done. The poem is in fact slightly intractable, one long sentence but Faure's setting picks up on the barcarolle of the opening line but creates one which is complex and richly perfumed. Finally C'est l'extase (It is rapture) which was very much full of controlled ecstasy. An apparently simple song, in the performance from Lemieux and Vignoles it was highly charged.

Guillaume Lekeu (1870-1894) died young, which is why his songs are less well known. Trois Poemes set three of the composer's own poems in free verse. Sur la tombe (On a tomb) started with a sombre piano,  when the voice entered it was a conversational way. The structure of the song was quite loose, reflecting the verse but complex too. Though not melodically memorably, there was freedom to the vocal lines and word setting, all rendered beautifully expressively by Lemieux and Vignoles. Ronde (Dance) was lighter, delightful and charming with a lovely insouciant piano part. Lekeu seemed to be very fond of putting the memorable melodic ideas in the piano, and making the vocal line more conversational. Nocturne started from a dark piano with a lyrically free vocal line.

The final group of songs in the first half was by Reynaldo Hahn (1874-1947), four Verlaine settings with the opening song of the group Offrande (Offering) using the same text as Faure's Green. Hahn's version was not as busy as Faure's, but there was something hypnotic and rather beautiful in the simplicity. D''une prison (From a prison) combined a shimmering piano with a poised and calm vocal line. Lemieux brought passion too, but always within the line and with great beauty of style. L'heure exquise (Exquisite hour) combined a lyrically flowing accompaniment with a voice confined to just a few notes. Simple, but expressive it was a very poised, French sort of ecstasy. The final song in the group Fetes galantes was another delight, with great character and charm from both performers. On-stage Lemieux showed a real sense of personality, and clear enjoyment in the music.

After the interval we had a group of songs by Charles Koechlin (1867-1950), still somewhat of a maverick, but with a very distinctive compositional voice. Lemieux's selection of songs came from Koechlin's opus five (from 1894) and opus eight (from 1891-9) setting Fernand Gregh, Theodore Faullin de Banville and Maurice de Marsan. Despite its title, Menuet (Minuet), this certainly was not a dance. Instead we had a rather richly textured piano with again, rather conversational vocal line. There was a certain austerity to the sound world, and a sense of elegant melancholy, but certainly seductive. La peche (Fishing) had lively character and great swagger, whilst La lune more elegant. It was something of a character song, given with great charm and a smile in the voice. L'hiver magically combined an evocative piano part with the voice on a monotone, before developing into something richly expressive. Finally Si tu le veux (If you so desire), which Koechlin set to an entirely different poem but his publisher persuaded him to change it to Maurice de Marsan's seductive verse. A song of elegant urgency, and an infectious delight in ecstasy.

Claude Debussy (1862-1918) produced two groups of Fetes Galantes setting the poetry of Paul Verlaine. Lemieux and Vignoles gave us book two, dating from 1904. Les ingenues introduced us to a new sound-world with a sense of elusiveness and equivocation in the music familiar from Pelleas et Melisande (premiered in 1902). Sounding both exotic and seductive, Lemieux combined fluidity of tone with a sense of the words and a range of colours to her voice. In Le faune, Roger Vignoles' piano was richly characterful with Lemieux hinting at much, but remaining elusive yet disturbing. Colloque sentimental (Lovers' dialogue) was apparently simply but richly suggestive. The performers brought an urgency to the song, but there was again something elusive about it, and the repeated tolling in the piano hinted at a troubled future for the lovers.

L'invitation au voyage (Invitation to journey) setting Baudelaire is perhaps the best known song by Henri Duparc (1848-1933) but that did not make it any less unwelcome particularly in a performance as fine as that from Lemieux and Vignoles. Finely controlled, without seeming to do too much the performers made it urgent and hypnotically involving. La vie anterieure (A previous life) started richly stately before developing via something more impulsive into an intense climax. Serenade florentine had a lovely flowing line, into which Lemieux brought an intense sense of not quite ecstasy. Finally, one of Duparc's other best known songs, Phydile done with poised perfection.

We were treated to two encores, first it was a delight to hear these performers in Reynaldo Hahn's best known song A Chloris and then the Vilanelle from Berlioz's Les nuits d'ete.

There was a CD signing afterwards, for Marie-Nicole Lemieux and Roger Vignoles' latest disc of French song on Naive. My advice would be, buy the disc as there are few people around today singing French song so well; but if Lemieux does a recital near you then kill for a ticket.
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