Friday 24 February 2023

A voyage round Pauline Viardot: Anna Bonitatibus & Angela Hewitt in Berlioz, Liszt, rare late Rossini and something by the Viardot herself

Pauline Viardot
Pauline Viardot
Berlioz: Les nuits d'été Op. 7, Pauline Viardot: Scène d'Hermione, Liszt: Tre sonetti di Petrarca S270/2,  Rossini: Giovanna d'Arco; Anna Bonitatibus, Angela Hewitt; Wigmore Hall

Music by Pauline Viardot & composers associated with her makes for an absorbing and finely performed programme, from the subtleties of Berlioz through to bravura late Rossini

Pianist Angela Hewitt currently has a residency at Wigmore Hall and for her concert on Thursday 23 February 2023, she joined forces with mezzo-soprano Anna Bonitatibus for a concert that might have been described as a voyage around the great 19th-century singer and composer, Pauline Viardot. Hewitt and Bonitatibus performed four significant works, three by composers who had links to Viardot and one by Viardot herself. Alongside Berlioz' Les nuits d'été Op. 7 and Liszt's 3 sonetti di Petrarca S270/2 we had two rarities, Viardot's Scène d'Hermione and Rossini's Giovanna d'Arco.

Viardot sang both Cassandre and Didon in excerpts from Berlioz' Les Troyens and when the idea was raised to create a version of Gluck's Orphée et Eurydice for mezzo-soprano (the gradual raising of pitch at the Paris Opera meant that Gluck's original French version was no longer accessible to contemporary tenors), it was for Viardot that Berlioz created his version.

Les nuits d'été date from rather before this. Berlioz wrote them in 1841 for voice and piano, and later orchestrated them and it is in this version that they are best known. The piano version is less well-known, partly because the standard published version did not use Berlioz' own piano part.

Bonitatibus sang Vilanelle lightly, but still with a rich colouring to the line, with shapely, expressive attention to text and music, and Hewitt brought a range of colour and character to the piano. There was a nice clarity to Hewitt's piano textures in Le spectre de la Rose, with Bonitatibus singing with a lovely hushed tone, creating a sense of being very interior. For all the vibrant climaxes, this was an intimate account of the song with a magically hushed ending. Sur les lagunes began as a sombre barcarolle, and there was a dark intensity to Bonitatibus' performance, moving from something rather interior to a strong climaxes. Throughout, the song was full of movement and character. Absence began with a grand piano gesture but then both performers kept things reined in, though keeping a sense of freedom, and alternating interior moments with searing drama. Au cimetière combined an apparently darkly expressive piano with a simple but moving vocal line. Finally, we ended with a passionate account of L'île inconnue.

Where Pauline Viardot's best-known composition remains her charming account of Cinderella, a late chamber opera written specifically for her students to perform. Her songs are also gaining increasing currency, but her Scène d'Hermione is something else again, a large-scale scene setting a furious speech from Racine's tragedy Andromaque in which Hermione, the daughter of Helen of Troy stands furious and wounded as she realises that Pyrrhus, whom she is to marry, does not want her. Viardot published it in 1887 but it is believed to date from far earlier.

It is a richly complex and dramatic work, coming over more as a long fluid recitative than the standard recitative and aria. It feels as if Viardot had her finger on the contemporary pulse of opera, and you can't help thinking of Berlioz' writing for Cassandre in Les Troyens. Beginning with a dramatic piano gesture and a darkly intense recitative, the music freely follows the emotional shape of Racine's words, moving between lyric intensity and dramatic brilliance. At the words 'Perfide! Bonitatibus gave out a terrible cry, and Hermione really winds herself up towards the end, with Bonitatibus wonderfully trenchant as the two performers created mesmerising drama.

Viardot was a gifted pianist as well as a singer and she studied with Liszt when she was a teenager, but though the two admired each other's gifts in later life, they were never close. Liszt was a great re-worker of things, sometimes making multiple settings of the same texts. His settings of three of Petrarch's sonnets date from the 1840s, for tenor and piano, in music where Liszt (who was living in Italy) seemed to be channelling Bellini. He later reworked them for piano solo, in the second book of Années de pèlerinage, then between 1864 and 1882 he created a second sung version, for lower voice (mezzo-soprano or baritone), reworking the music considerably and re-ordering the songs. Gone is the sense of the Italian aria, and instead Liszt's experimental harmonies and questing thought are more to the fore.

'Benedetto sia'l giorno' had a natural feel to the phrasing, and it was lovely hearing Bonitatibus able to bring freedom to the phrasing by singing her native language. This was a very personal, intimate account of the song, and though moving to a climax, we ended in a confiding manner, the opera house a long way behind. With 'Pace non trovo', Hewitt's dramatic opening piano gesture almost crashed into the end of the previous song. Both Hewitt and Bonitatibus performed with restless intensity, and the freedom and vividness of Bonitatibus' performance took us a long way from Liszt channelling Bellini. Finally, 'I'vidi in terra angelici costumi' with its lyric melody given with a lovely freedom, and the two performers really brought out the contrasts between the piano outbursts and the quiet intimacy of the vocal line.

We ended with a piece of late Rossini, the cantata Giovana d'arco which was written in 1832, some three years after his final opera. This is in traditional form, recitative, aria, recitative, aria with the second aria being a bravura showpiece, but it shows Rossini to be still at the top of his game and whilst he perhaps does not break new ground, certainly, he stretches the form.

We began with a long piano prelude, almost an overture with hints of the militaristic background and then a long recitative where Giovanna's quite intimate vocal thoughts were punctuated by more dramatic piano writing. Her first aria was lyric, though not without a certain complexity, yet there was a seriousness to it too, but with touches of imaginative colour. A short, dramatic recitative with some vivid piano writing, led to the final aria which was simply brilliant, full of bravura writing which showed Bonitatibus to be in devastating form. The structure of the aria had quite a sense of freedom to it, creating a complex piece for all the virtuoso brilliance of the writing.

We were treated to two encores including Ravel's lovely Vocalise-étude en forme de habanera.

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