A short title sequence reminds us that Verbier is one of the
world’s most famous ski resorts. This most satisfying recital
was filmed at the sixteenth annual music festival that also
takes place there.
Chanson d’avril makes a lovely opener, though in that delightful
song, and in Franck’s more sombre Nocturne which follows, Miss
Graham has not quite got into her stride. What is obvious though,
right from the outset, is the warm complicity between the singer
and her accompanist, and Malcolm Martineau’s immensely subtle
and sensitive playing brings great pleasure throughout the recital.
The third song is an adaptation of Saint-Saëns’ famous orchestral
piece. The text uses peasants and barons, sex and death, to
point up a moral of social equality! It’s light-hearted and,
like all Saint-Saëns, well conceived both for the piano and
the voice. Its placing here in the programme is a sign of the
care the artists have taken to construct a programme both varied
and balanced. They call it a “tasting menu”, referring to the
fact that it is made up mainly of single songs by many different
composers. One might think such a formula would be bitty and
difficult to bring off. The songs are arranged skilfully, however,
with sufficient link and contrast, both musically and by theme,
to make a satisfying whole. I think even a well-informed lover
of French song might find one or two new ones here. And the
programme certainly pleases the Verbier audience.
“Les cigales chantent mieux que les violins”, or so Chabrier’s
delightful song tells us, and see how delightfully Graham “plays”
the piano postlude with her eyes, along with her excellent pianist.
Duparc’s Au pays où se fait la guerre is a young woman’s
passionate lament at the absence of her soldier lover whilst
she is left alone to await his return. Ravel’s Le paon
follows, and though we might be surprised now that the first
performance of the cycle from which it is taken provoked a riot,
we hear, nonetheless, something altogether new, both in the
writing and the daring choice of text. Susan Graham brilliantly
captures the mocking irony of this miniature masterpiece, as
she does, even more so, in the Caplet song that follows. And
this is perhaps the moment to say that her French – a horrible
language for any singer other than a native French speaker –
is so good that it’s a perverse pleasure to point out that she
mispronounces the word “leçon” in this song.
Singer and pianist conjure up a suitably melancholy atmosphere
in two songs dealing with unhappy love affairs, where the harmonic
astringency of Roussel leads into some unmistakeable Debussy.
After this, Fauré’s wordless song, written as an examination
piece for the Paris Conservatoire, comes as something of a relief.
A short group of lighter songs follows, beginning with Honegger’s
three-song cycle that, in spite of its minuscule duration, evokes
a world of human emotion. Quite what the final “Song of the
Pear” has to do with the mermaids in the other songs is something
I’m still pondering, though. Manuel Rosenthal’s song about an
unwelcome immigrant in Calais is a brilliant recital piece:
singer and pianist lose no opportunity to act out its comic
storyline. Miss Graham’s operatic experience has already been
in evidence earlier in the recital, and she relies on it here,
and even more in the final item of the programme. The excellent
booklet note by Paula Kennedy quite rightly points out that
Poulenc’s La Dame de Monte-Carlo is not really a song at all,
more a short operatic scena. The character, female, aging, disappointed,
fits Poulenc like a glove, and the use of irony and an unlikely
setting to express serious and profound human issues is typical
both of that composer and of much of modern French music. It
is a fine piece and this performance of it is very moving. Reynaldo
Hahn’s cool A Chloris, with echoes of Bach in the piano part,
is a most effective encore.
The sung texts are in French and if you want to practise your
French still further you can switch on the French subtitles.
Otherwise, translations are provided for English, German or
Japanese speaking viewers.
The recital is simply but effectively filmed, with no tricks.
One particularly effective camera angle shows us Miss Graham
from the side, whilst at the same time revealing her accompanist’s
face. That said, the back cover of the booklet announces a CD,
Onyx 4030, on which these same artists duplicate almost exactly
the same programme, as well as one or two extra songs. I haven’t
heard the Onyx disc, but since I don’t feel that in the present
case the visual element really adds very much, I think I might
be more tempted by it than I am by this admittedly excellent