Monday 14 November 2022

The friendship Hector Berlioz and Théophile Gautier in song at the London Song Festival

Théophile Gautier by Nadar (c. 1856)
Théophile Gautier by Nadar (c. 1856)
Hector Berlioz and Théophile Gautier; Clara Barbier Serrano, Lexie Moon, Ben Vonberg-Clark, James Atkinson, Nigel Foster, Kevin Moore; London Song Festival at Hinde Street Methodist Church
Reviewed 11 November 2022 (★★★★)

A delightful exploration of the writer Théophile Gautier, setting Berlioz' settings of his poems alongside those by other composers and Gautier's own travel writings

This year, Nigel Foster's London Song Festival is exploring Friends and Lovers, programmes have included ones devoted to Ralph and Ursula Vaughan Williams, Franz Schubert and Johann Mayrhofer, and those to come include Samuel Coleridge Taylor and Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Benjamin Britten and W.H. Auden. 

On Friday 11 November 2022, the theme of the concert was the friendship of Hector Berlioz and Théophile Gautier. At Hinde Street Methodist Church, Clara Barbier Serrano (soprano), Lexie Moon (mezzo-soprano), Ben Vonberg-Clark (tenor), James Atkinson (baritone), Nigel Foster (piano) and Kevin Moore (speaker), presented a programme that mixed Berlioz' settings of Théophile Gautier with other settings of his poems by Faure, Falla, Viardot, Debussy, Chausson, Paladilhe, Duparc, Julies Bordier and Bizet, alongside Théophile Gautier's own words spoken by Kevin Moore.

Though we know Théophile Gautier as a poet, and his friendship with Berlioz was based on Berlioz' interest in Gautier's poems, during his lifetime Gautier was mainly known as a travel writer, so Nigel Foster's programme was divided into themed sections on travel with stops in Spain, Constantinople, China, Russia and Africa, along with sections on Young Love travelling in Spring, sadness and memories of those left behind. Gautier proved to be an engaging and witty writer and Foster's selection of his writings meshed beautifully with the songs.

Many of the works in the programme were unknown to me. The centrepiece, spread throughout the evening, was Berlioz' original version of Les nuits d'été. Berlioz set six of Gautier's poems from La Comédie de la More for tenor (or soprano) and piano in 1841, only later orchestrating them for the version better known today. Here, they were sung by tenor Ben Vonberg-Clark.

Published in 1838, Gautier's La Comédie de la Mort (with a title harking back to Dante's Divine Comedy) is a collection of poems portraying death in all its forms, sometimes through the eyes and words of a young, beautiful girl. Foster made the point in his programme notes that for Gautier, death was something voluptuous and exhilarating, the flip side to life and an often welcome escape from life's turbulence.

For the other songs, we heard further settings of poems from La Comédie de la Mort by Falla, Chausson, Duparc and Faure, along with settings of other Gautier poems including some written in the places described, such as poems from Espana, his collection of 43 poems inspired by his 1840 visit to Spain.

Though only Clara Barbier Serrano was Francophone, all four singers paid great attention to the words and ensured that these counted, and in the relatively intimate space of Hinde Street Methodist Church, this meant that we did indeed get an evening of sung poetry.

Ben Vonberg-Clark began Les nuits d'été with an account of L'ile Inconnue that combined a strong vigorous line with more seductive moments. Au cimitière featured some lovely moments of mezza-voce, alongside moments of romantic darkness and a sense of the poet's endless questing. Villanelle was impulsive and engaging, and was very much about the words, the use of the piano version allowing Vonberg-Clark to sing more on the edge of the voice than the richer orchestral version would. Sur les lagunes had a real sense of the boat travelling in Foster's piano, over which Vonberg-Clark's vocal line slowly unfolded to create a really sustained intensity. The opening of Absence placed far more focus on the voice, than happens in the orchestral version, and we ended with a beautifully floated line from Vonberg-Clark. Le spectre de la Rose was quite intimate at first, gradually growing in power and urgency.

Clara Barbier Serrano began with an enjoyably stylish account of Manuel de Falla's Séguidille, a song that combined Spanish flavour with an element of French polish from Falla's Parisian years. Debussy's Coquetterie Posthume was from his early Vasnier songbook and featured a setting of a slightly macabre poem about a young woman describing how her body will be laid out after death, yet Debussy's music had hints of more popular forms in it. Paladilhe's La Libellule, setting quite a long poem, was given a delightful engaging performance by Barbier Serrano with lovely light piano elaborations. She brought a lovely sense of style to Faure's Tristesse which was something of a melancholy waltz. 

Lexie Moon displayed a lovely rich mellow voice in her dark and serious account of Faure's Seule, whilst in Falla's Les Colombes she really shaped the line to the words, contrasting with Falla's highly decorative piano commentary. Moon and Foster made Chausson's Les Papillons was beautifully light and very urgent. In Duparc's Au pays ou se fait la guerre, Moon moved from the serious and intent to moments of high drama, ending with a powerful climax. Paladilhe's Fantasie featured a fluid line from Moon over remarkable spacious piano writing, though as the song developed textures became more conventional.

In a nicely flowing account of Faure's Le Matelots, James Atkinson was initially delightfully seductive but later gave us the benefit of his magnificently resonant tones. Atkinson has a very expressive face, and throughout the evening he made this a strong part of his performance. Pauline Viardot's Sérénade was something of a real novelty, a delightful serenade of surprising complexity in a wonderfully convincing performance from Atkinson. In Falla's Chinoiserie, Atkinson's quite direct vocal line was contrasted with the more exotic Chinoiserie in the piano. In Chausson's La dernière feuille Atkinson began rather intimate and interior but moved towards profound anxiety in the middle section. Jules Bordier was a composer who was born and lived for most of his life in Angers, in the Loire region of Western France. Atkinson brought a wonderful sense of swagger to Bordier's drinking song, Chanson de Malartic (malartic being a generic name for a hard-working countryman).

The recital ended with a duet, Bizet's delightful setting of La Fuite performed by Barbier Serrano and Vonberg-Clark. This was highly engaging evening, mixing poetry and music in just the right way and introducing us not only to Gautier's writings but to some lesser known French song.

Still to come at this year's festival at Hinde Street Methodist Church:

  • Francis Poulenc & Paul Eluard, with Emma Roberts (mezzo-soprano), Michael Lafferty (baritone), 25 November 2022
  • Samuel Coleridge-Taylor & Paul Laurence Dunbar, with Gweneth Ann Rand (soprano), Ronald Samm (tenor), 2 December 2022
    • featuring the premiere of my setting of Dunbar's We wear the mask
  • Benjamin Britten & W.H. Auden, with Charlotte Bowden (soprano), Harry Grigg (tenor), 9 December 2022

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