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Voices of our time: Sylvia McNair
Henri DUPARC (1848-1933)
Phidylé (1882) [4’57].
Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924)

Au bord de l’eau (1875) [2’12].
Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Mélodies (1930) - No. 1, Pourquoi? ([2’02].
Erik SATIE (1866-1935)

Gymnopédie No. 2 (1888) [2’34].
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)

Vocalise-étude en forme de habanera (1907) [3’04].
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)

Ariettes oubliées (publ. 1903) - No. 4, Chevaux de bois (1885) [3’11].
Manuel de FALLA (1876-1946)

Siete canciones populares españolas (1914-15) [12’21].
John CORIGLIANO (b. 1938)

Mr Tambourine Man: Six Poems of Bob Dylan (2000) [30’22].
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-91)

Esultate, Jubilate, K165/K158a (1773) - Alleluia [4’24].
Sylvia McNair (soprano); Roger Vignoles (piano).
Rec. Théâtre Musical de Paris-Châtelet on 24 May 2000.


After my experience of the Grace Bumbry DVD in this series, I was not sure what to expect. But Sylvia McNair’s contribution is simply superb. Whatever minor caveats one might have, there is a security of interpretation and a visceral love of the music she sings that makes this disc irresistible. Add to this the bonus of the Corigliano cycle, written for McNair; a real work of substance.

The programming is exemplary (the works appear exactly as in my title to this review). The emphasis, pre-Corigliano, is French and Spanish, McNair clearly playing to her strengths. In her first interview sequence (they speckle the programme, in between works), she talks of her respect for and awareness of the importance of the text. If this element is strong throughout, it comes to a head in the Corigliano.

But to start at the beginning, with Duparc’s Phidylé (McNair: ‘I love it!’) has the singer spinning her thread over Vignoles’ softly pulsating chordal accompaniment. Vignoles is in almost every way the perfect accompanist, and he helps McNair to capture the song’s near-ecstatic climax.

The Fauré (in C sharp minor - ‘a grrreat key’, apparently) is notable not only for McNair’s sensitive handling of line but also for Vignoles’ care with counter-melodies. But maybe it is the Messiaen that will surprise. The harmonies are characteristically ‘slippy’, chords sliding to the next sensually. This is a lovely song (very approachable, if that worries you) and McNair obviously loves this, too.

Punctuating the vocal items is a brief Gymnopédie that Vignoles despatches with great sensitivity; McNair stands to the side of the piano and gazes on.

As McNair puts it, one advantage of the Vocalise is that there are no words to forget. Ravel’s example of this genre is, perhaps unsurprisingly, sensual in a less developed - or perhaps more refined - way than the Messiaen. A rapid, quick-fire Debussy ‘Chevaux de bois’ contains a marvellous sense of mystery later on. McNair says she wants to sing Mélisande; maybe she has done since then? It would be wonderful to hear. Vignoles, too, speaks before this item, reflecting on the differences between German Lied and French Mélodies. His mode of delivery is very English and very different from McNair’s so they complement each other well.

So to the first of the two sets of songs. Falla’s popular Spanish songs are magnificent. The singer claims to love the language and the pianist does a mean guitar-strumming impression. McNair does the intensely Spanish ornaments in the vocal line especially well - try No. 4, ‘Jota’. The strength of the McNair/Vignoles partnership is that they can immerse themselves in a lullaby (No. 5, ‘Nana’) as easily as they can in the more extrovert numbers (the final song, No. 7,’Polo’).

Finally, for the advertised part of the programme, anyway, John Corigliano’s Mr Tambourine Man. McNair had been singing in Chicago in Corigliano’s opera The ghosts of Versailles. When asked who she would like to write a cycle for her, her response was immediate and this is the result. Finished in February 2000 and premiered in Carnegie Hall, this finds McNair and Vignoles at their very best, don’t let the fact that McNair uses the printed music put you off. Following on from the folk-like settings of Copland and the songs of Leonard Bernstein, this cycle is highly impressive.

Interestingly, the piano introduction to the first song, ‘Prelude, Mr Tambourine Man’ is not a million miles away from the Franco-Spanish Impressionist feeling we have heard thus far.

Even more notable is the way the concentration is screwed up even higher from the performers. It seems obvious that they want to do the very best by this piece.

The second movement, ‘Clothes Line’, is sparse, along the lines of Copland. The piano introduction put me in mind of the slow movement of Copland’s Duo for flute and piano. This is very still music, very delicate and spare. For ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, the third song, the piano seems to reflect the line, ‘How many roads must a man walk down?’ in its trudging gait.

The final Postlude carries straight on from the fifth song, ‘Chimes of Freedom’. The music gets ever more spare, until McNair is left to begin the Postlude on her own; and beguilingly she does so, too. This is the art of the simple to make the greatest point, the greatest affect as well as effect.

The encore is very much an optional extra, as the Corigliano demands prolonged contemplation long after the music stops. However the Mozart, the odd man out in the programme, too, features superb melismatic passage-work from McNair. It is not really thrilling and there are some tuning problems that indicate some fatigue. Finish with the Corigliano, though, and you will not be disappointed.

Thoroughly recommended.

Colin Clarke

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