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Oxford Lieder Festival 2009 (3) - Music and Poetry in fin-de-siècle Paris: A recital of Fauré, Debussy, Charpentier by Mary Bevan and Sholto Kynoch, Oxford Lieder Festival, Jacqueline du Pre Music Building, 31.10.2009 (RJ) 

The final Saturday of the Oxford Lieder Festival could be described as "le jour des mélodies". "Mélodie" is a more self-consciously highbrow version of the "chanson", which was regarded as lowbrow, according to Dr Helen Abbott from Bangor University, North Wales who led this informative study day with her colleague Dr Chris Collins.

Dr Abbott is an expert on French poetry written during the golden age of mélodie, which lasted from the mid-19th century until the early years of the 20th, and she has recently completed a book on the subject (see below). This was a time when the French were reacting against opera, considering it too middle class, and also against Austro-German instrumental music.

They desired something different, and this is what the "mélodies" provided. The new songs were performed in salons hosted by amateur enthusiasts by young, aspiring professionals capable of singing works which were technically difficult. These included settings of poems by Baudelaire.

Charles Baudelaire, poet and dandy, had a strong interest in music; he had corresponded with Liszt and been greatly impressed by Wagner. The latter's influence can be found in his mixing of the different senses, his symbolism and his solemnity. Yet his poems were not as popular with composers as other poets of the time. Why not?

As an admirer of Baudelaire's poems, I sometimes feel they contain so much music in them already that it is hard to improve on them. Also with their long lines and rich language they present a challenge to composers and singers. Debussy's response to the challenge was to make his arrangements of Baudelaire complicated and chromatic, while Charpentier opted for grandeur and drama.

Soprano Mary Bevan and Sholto Kynoch joined forces to give a rare outing for several of these settings, including one by Fauré of Baudelaire's Hymne. Miss Bevan, a member of the RCM's prestigious Song Circle, brought out the operatic, declamatory nature of this relatively straightforward poem culminating on a note of rapture.

Partnered by Sholto Kynoch she went on to give an impressive account of Le Balcon, set by Debussy, with its dreamy sensuousness and outbursts of ecstasy. Harmonie du Soir (Evening Harmony), which was analysed at length in the study session, was shorter but no less intense.

In Le Jet d'Eau (The Fountain) Mary Bevan injected both intimacy and passion into the poetry, while Récueillement (Meditative Calm) was more measured and solemn. The Debussy section of the recital finished with La Mort des Amants (Death of the Lovers) in which the soprano once more overcame the complexities of the music to focus on the intense emotion of the words

Sholto Kynoch, admitted that he would not normally programme all five Debussy settings together, given the demands they put on the listener. Undaunted the audience prepared to find out how Baudelaire's poetry would fare in the hands of Charpentier, whose main claim to fame is his opera "Louise".

Right from the first setting, of Les Yeux de Berthe, we were in a more expansive sound world with a clear vocal line and an intense piano part. Then came Charpentier's version of Le Jet d'Eau heard earlier which was more ambitious vocally. The audience experienced a frisson as they heard the refrain sung by the all female Consort Iridiana hidden away on the balcony.

La Mort des Amants, also heard earlier, seemed to offer greater consolation than Debussy's version. The culmination of the recital, however, was the wonderful Invitation au Voyage (Invitation to the Voyage) in which Mary Bevan's clear and expressive voice blended with the chorus in a style more reminiscent of an opera house than a salon. What more satisfying climax could one wish for?

Roger Jones

Details of Dr Abbott's book: Between Baudelaire and Mallarmé: Voice, Conversation and Music, Helen Abbott, Ashgate Publishing. ISBN 978-0-7546-6745-2

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