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S & H Recital Review

Brahms, Berg, Debussy, Poulenc, Messager, Simons. Susan Graham, Malcolm Martineau, Wigmore Hall, February 7th. (M. E.)



Ah, the draw of the Diva! Whilst last week's (reportedly superb) Wigmore recital by the tenor Christoph Prégardien appears not to have received a single notice, last night's concert seems set to be a different story, since the galleys were loaded to the gunwales (if you'll permit me such a [partially] mixed metaphor) with adoring hacks. Susan Graham is clearly a lady with a besotted following, and this recital offered ample evidence to account for it

From the moment she swept onto the platform in an elegant black gown, you were aware that you were in the presence of a star; here is a singer who knows how to run a recital, and whose communication with the audience is natural, unforced and warm. Her choice of Brahms 'Zigeunerlieder' as an opening was not however, an absolutely happy one, since it took her the first two songs to get into her stride, musically speaking, but by 'Wisst ihr, wann' this opulent voice had found its home, and she sang the touching phrases with real tenderness; at 'Schätzelein,du bist mein, inniglich küss ich dich' singer and pianist achieved an ideal blend of delicacy and ardour. The fact that Ms. Graham is 'the real thing' was amply demonstrated in her wonderful management of the difficult ascent to the A in 'Armes Herz, bleibt ihm ewig,ewig treu' in 'Lieber Gott,' which she sang with gleaming tone and convincing emphasis. Martineau's playing was completely at one with the singing, deeply sensitive yet fiery when required, and the tiny postlude to 'Kommt dir manchmal in den Sinn' was played with exquisite skill

Debussy's 'Proses Lyriques' is, to be quite candid, a piece of music I could well live without, but if one has to hear it, then Graham's singing and Martineau's playing of it must be as close to perfection as one could possibly get. The 'lyrical prose' itself is the kind of thing which I'd have been ashamed to have been offered by the 19 year old members of the Creative Writing class I once ran, but of course the language was what the composer needed for what he wanted to write at the time, and the rippling piano parts and fluid vocal lines gave plenty of opportunity for both singer and pianist to shine

It does not remotely surprise me that the French government has honoured Ms Graham with the distinction of Chevalier des Ordres des Arts et des Lettres, since her singing of French is near perfect, and we French speakers are mighty choosy when it comes to this sort of thing. Her phrasing, the languid, caressing way she approaches certain lines, and the lushness of her vowel sounds all reminded me of Janet Baker; high praise indeed, and the way she combines astringency of tone where required, with the mostrapturous, arching phrases when appropriate, gave intense pleasure, asdid Martineau's virtuosic, supple, refined playing

'Terrific - I adore her' was my first comment on being asked what I thought at the interval, and that opinion lasted through Berg's 'Seven Early Songs,' to which she brought limpid tone, wonderful variety of vocal colouring (especially at Erklang die Nacht' in 'Traumgekrönt' and 'Wie leise die Minuten zieh'n,' in 'Im Zimmer') and shapely phrasing However, I was less struck with the rest of her programme, which consisted of Poulenc's 'Quatre Poèmes de Guillaume Apollinaire' and pieces by Messager and Moises Simons. For these later works she did give us plenty of notice of the kind of style to be adopted; when a singer sheds her chaste little black bolero top and replaces it with a feather boa, the only place to go is nicky-nacky-noo land, and so it was to be

We got the whole shebang; sly glances, cutesy little pouts, finger-wagging, and so on. Sigh. Well, it was no worse than Renée Fleming singing 'If it ain't got that swing,' and the lady's devoted admirers were no less ecstatic, whilst I contemplated the nearest exit route. No one could claim the status of great music for the works of the last two composers, but there was certainly much pleasure to be gained from the crystalline clarity of Martineau's playing and his wonderful inscrutability during the gruesome 'J'ai deux amants.'

Two encores were offered, the second some more rather inconsequential Debussy, but the first was a different story; Hahn's 'A Cloris' is an exquisite piece, all too rarely included in recitals, and here it was given the kind of performance that lovers of song dream about. Martineau played the wonderful Bach - like accompaniment in such a way as to make you gasp at its aching beauty, and Graham sang it with the most perfect mastery of diction, line and phrasing, bringing me back to where I had been at the end of the first half, and where I feel I should be, that is, right at her feet

Melanie Eskenazi


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