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S & H Recital Review

‘If My Verses Had Wings:’ a song biography of Reynaldo Hahn. Felicity Lott, John Mark Ainsley, Christopher Maltman, Graham Johnson, Wigmore Hall, September 17th 2002. (ME)

 

In his introduction to the programme for this delectable evening, Graham Johnson remarks that ‘the Wigmore, thank God, has not been a temple for the uplifting and sublime every night of the week,’ and whilst one has to say that this concert certainly fitted his definition of ‘less highbrow musical experiences of the highest quality,’ such was the sheer class of the singing and the presentation of highlights from Hahn’s fascinating life, that it would be difficult to imagine anyone not emerging from the hall feeling elevated. Although the evening was not lacking in humour, the overall experience felt elegiac, stemming not only from the nature of much of the material but also from the remembrance of times past in this hall, when the ‘Songmakers’ Almanac’ was so much a staple of the programming; alas, all the original singers as well as the inspirational Johnson having moved on, we are only rarely treated to such evenings as this, in which one not only hears fine singing and playing but enjoys true ensemble performances as well as having one’s knowledge of the music enriched.

The programme was structured as chronological scenes from Hahn’s life, including not only his own works but those of composers influential or important to him, interspersed with astutely selected spoken parts: while Graham Johnson provided the introductory passages to set each ‘scene,’ the singers took a variety of parts, with the voice of Hahn himself provided by John Mark Ainsley, who presented the character with great sensitivity and feeling, especially in the cadence of such phrases as ‘do not speak of my misfortunes.’ The first half was based around music of Hahn’s years in Paris, and offered superb performances of some exquisite songs.

Felicity Lott is second to none in her deep intimacy with, and understanding of, the nuances of French song, and she caught exactly the right heady tone for ‘C’est à Paris’ and gave a beautifully languid rendition of ‘L’heure exquise,’ even though she was taxed here and there by some of the wider divisions. Whenever Dame Felicity is scheduled to sing I always anticipate the evening as a whole with delight, modified by the thought of the small amount of cringing which I know I’ll be doing during certain songs; well, that’s fine – plenty of other singers choose material that makes me cringe - I’m just easily embarrassed, but on this evening I found the more frivolous material surprisingly easy to take. A song with a title like ‘Mais…vous m’avez pincé le derrière!’ would seem calculated to have me heading for the door, but I actually found Lott and Ainsley’s performance of it genuinely entertaining, and even managed not to close my eyes and think of Schubert during the various antics required by the lines.

The ‘title song’ of the recital, ‘Si mes vers avaient des ailes’ was sung with touching directness by Ainsley, the many leaps in the vocal line negotiated with skill; Proust said of Hahn’s work that ‘never since Schumann has music painted such sorrow,’ and the melancholy, introspective note emerges clearly in even so early a song when it is given a performance of such romantic intensity. Christopher Maltman also provided some finely eloquent singing in ‘Maid of Athens’ and ‘Chanson d’Automne,’ shaping his phrases with real sweetness; it has been such a pleasure to watch this singer grow in musical stature over so relatively short a period of time. The first half ended on a rousing note with Saint-Saëns’ ‘El desichado,’ a trio in which the voices intertwine, the desolate message of the words counterpointed by the virtuosic nature of the vocal writing.

Hahn said of himself ‘I love Taste: I hate Exaggeration…’ and Johnson referred to his music as possessing ‘Elegance and charm which did not preclude deep feeling,’ and these qualities were shown in abundance by Ainsley’s singing of ‘A Chloris,’ which to me is the finest of all Hahn’s songs. This miraculous little work has a Bach – like accompaniment which Johnson played superbly, and Ainsley sang with the most perfect, unforced candour and sincerity. It was followed by Maltman’s word – sensitive, direct, and beautifully buoyant ‘Quand je fus pris au pavillon,’ revealing his excellent French diction – a rare thing in an English – speaking baritone - and his direct, unfussy singing of ‘The swing.’

The centrepiece of the second half was the songs of Hahn’s Venetian period, composed in the city and first sung in a Gondola, complete with piano, gondoliers and friends, all ‘well lit,’ a phrase with which Ainsley somehow inspired many of the audience to chortling. Hahn said of the ‘Chansons en dialecte Vénetien’ that when he first performed them, ‘I felt that emotion which reverberates in any composer’s heart when the music has been truly shared and understood by those around him,’ and it was easy to see why: they may not be what might be termed highly serious, but they are ravishingly beautiful, and when sung and played as they were by Ainsley and Johnson, they are unforgettable. ‘Sopra l’acqua indormenzada’ balances a rather coquettish vocal line with a gently rocking piano sound (it’s that ‘well lit’ gondola, not to mention the gondolier…) and it presents many vocal challenges, most of which were surmounted with ease although there was a little strain at some of the more taxing moments. ‘La barcheta’ is probably the best known of this group, and it was beautifully sung, every line invested with elegance and languid charm.

Lott gave a winning performance of the well – known set piece from ‘Mon bel inconnu,’ ‘C’est très vilain d’être infidèle,’ showing once more that she has few, if any, equals when it comes to the dramatic presentation of French words and the engagement with an audience so essential if such material is to make its full impact, and all three singers joined in a most enjoyable (yes, really) performance of ‘La dernière Valse,’ not only managing to execute a few graceful steps on this tiny stage, but evoking the bittersweet experience that is the hallmark of this composer: ‘Mais ce soir vaisons ensemble, C’est pour la dernière fois.’

Hahn believed that the piano accompaniment should be the natural resonance of the vocal line, and Johnson’s superbly sympathetic playing reflected this throughout, just as Lott’s exquisite singing of the single encore ‘D’une Prison’ gave a perfect example of the composer’s desired ‘Balance, Restraint and Elegance,’ qualities which characterized the whole of this wonderful evening. More, please, both of Hahn and of the ‘Songmakers’ Almanac,’ in whatever new guise it may appear.

 

Melanie Eskenazi


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