Friday 24 November 2023

Magical textures & supple lines: Fauré's La bonne chanson, Ravel & Canteloube from Louise Alder & eleven friends at Wigmore Hall

Emma Bardac in 1931
Emma Bardac in 1931

Fauré: La bonne chanson, Berlioz: La captive, Ravel: Shéhérazade, Canteloube: Songs of the Auvergne; Louise Alder, Doric String Quartet,  Joseph Middleton; Wigmore Hall
Reviewed 23 November 2023

Suppleness and flexibility were the watchwords in this lovely evening of French song for voice and instrumental ensemble as part of Louise Alder's residency

Louise Alder continued her residency at Wigmore Hall on Thursday 23 November 2023 with an evening of French song for voice and instrumental ensemble. Joined by pianist Joseph Middleton, the Doric String Quartet (Tim Crawford, Ying Xue, Hélène Clément, John Myerscough), Laurène Durantel - double bass, Amina Hussain - flute, Rachael Clegg - oboe, Max Welford - clarinet, Guylaine Eckersley - bassoon, and Mark Alder Bennett horn for Fauré's piano and string quintet version of La bonne chanson, and George Striven's chamber versions of Ravel's Shéhérazade and Canteloube's Songs of the Auvergne.

Behind Fauré's La bonne chanson lies the fascinating figure of Emma Bardac, singer, wife of a banker and Fauré's mistress. During the 1890s Fauré wrote La bonne chanson for Emma and the Dolly Suite for Emma's daughter. Fauré's relationship with Emma Bardac would last around a decade, but she would go on to divorce her husband and marry Debussy in 1905, who would write Children's Corner for his and Emma's daughter. And Emma was the dedicatee of the final song in Ravel's cycle.

Fauré wrote the cycle, for soprano and piano, during the Summers of 1892 and 1893 when he stayed with Emma and her husband, and Emma would sing the newly composed material for him each day. It was published in 1894, dedicated to Emma, then in 1898 Fauré created a version for piano and string quintet. The work received a mixed reception, after the premiere Saint-Saens declared that Fauré had gone mad but Proust loved it! The cycle sets nine poems from Verlaine's 1870 collection of the same name.

Essentially a cycle of love songs, we can perhaps trace the development of Fauré and Emma's affair in the songs. But Fauré's style is not simple, many of the songs have a harmonic restlessness that underpins the more direct vocal line. 

The first song, 'Une sainte en son auréole' led us into the style quite clearly with Alder singing with poised yet vibrant tone with a fluid sense of line, seductively leading us on through the story and surrounded by a web of delicate, restless strings. Fauré's orchestration throughout the cycle is magical, he rarely uses all six instruments and varies the colours and effects. The faster songs such as 'Puisque l'aube grandit' were wonderfully impulsive as Alder seemed to want to carry us away, all the time performing with style and engagement. 'La lune blanche luit dans les bois' had moments that were really exquisite, whilst 'J'allais par des chemins perfides' ended with a sense of suppressed rapture.

Throughout, Alder impressed with the suppleness of her line, the flexibility, expressing through music and words rather than trying to push the envelope. 'J'ai presque peur, en vérité' had an underlying sense of anxiety, whilst 'Avant que tu ne t'en ailles' veered between the thoughtful and the vividly mobile, ending with further rapture. 'Donc, ce sera par un clair jour d'été' moved from light and fast to something rather magical, with the magic returning in 'N'est-ce pas?'. Whilst a colleague I was chatting to expressed a preference for the original piano version, for me there was no question that Fauré's use of the strings brought a real feeling of magic to the textures, cuminating in the concluding passage to 'L'hiver a cessé'. 

After La bonne chanson, there was an extra treat. Alder, Middleton and cellist John Mysercough performed Berlioz' Victor Hugo setting, La Captive, written in 1832. Again, Alder demonstrated a lovely suppleness in the vocal line and duetted finely with Mysercough's cello. A relatively simple strophic song, all the subtlety came in the suppleness of line and the performers subtle variations of colour, emphasis and texture.

After the interview we turned to Ravel for his song cycle Shéhérazade setting poems by Tristan Klingsor. Premiered in 1904, the final song 'L'indifférent' was dedicated to Emma Bardac (by then starting her affair with the still-married Debussy). Originally written for soprano and orchestra, this and the Canteloube were performed in reductions for piano and wind quintet by horn-player George Strivens.

'Asie' was taken quite slow, yet was very seductive, moving into moments of dark intensity and moments full of vivid colour and movement. I will be quite frank, I missed Ravel's orchestra but Strivens' version successfully reinvented the piece, though I found that in the Wigmore Hall the wind was perhaps a little too present, and I thought this might be a case for preferring the subtler tones of period instruments, and just think what colours you'd get from those! 'La flûte enchantée' combined Amina Hussain's gorgeous flute solo with Alder's seductive voice as she floated the melody. 'L'indifférent' was slow and intimate, and here Strivens created some lovely shimmering instrumental accompaniment.

We ended with a group of Canteloube's Songs of the Auvergne. He wrote 27 in all, split over five series and we heard songs from 1923 alongside those from 1954, and all seemed in the same style. Striven's chamber reduction was effective, but seemed to lack just that degree of suaveness that Canteloube's original had, or perhaps again it was that the instruments were a trifle too present. However this was a delightful selection of seven songs, beginning with vivid character of 'Tè, l'co, tè!', moving through the laid back moments of 'N’aï pas iéu dè mîo' and the rhapsodic clarinet solo in 'Lo calhé' to the luscious harmonies of 'La delaïssádo'. The penultimate song was the vividly done 'Hé! Beyla‑z‑y dau fé!', so much so that it came back as an encore. The group formally ended with, of course, 'Baïlèro'. 

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