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Debussy, Duparc, Saint-Saëns, Chabrier, Hahn and Ravel: Stéphane Degout (baritone), Hélène Lucas (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 10.2.2011 (BBr)

Trois mélodies de Paul Verlaine (1891)

Duparc: Le gallop (1869). Lamento (1883), Elégie (1874), La vie antérieure (1884)

Saint-Saëns: Au cimetière and Tournoiement from Mélodies persanes, op.26 (1870)

Chabrier: L’île heureuse (1889), Chanson pour Jeanne (1886), Les cigales (1889)

Hahn: Trois jours de vendange (1891), Cimetière de champagne (1893)

Ravel: Histoires naturelles (1906)

Debussy: Trois ballades de Villon (1910)

At last! A singer with a voice attached to a brain; with the knowledge of how to project a line, how to deliver the individual character of each song and how to use vibrato in the most subtle and expressive way. Stéphane Degout has all these attributes coupled to an engaging personality. He started with a nicely paced performance of Debussy’s early Verlaine mélodies, the middle of the three being beautifully sustained. Duparc’s chansons are always welcome in recital for they are amongst the most exquisite works in the repertoire. Degout didn’t choose the most obvious, very sensibly, and he wove a mesmerizing spell as the four songs built to a powerful, but not overpowering, climax with La vie antérieure at the words “It is there that I lived in a sensuous repose”. This was marvellous stuff.

Two songs from Saint-Saëns’s Mélodies persanes made a very good foil to the emotional hothouse which is Duparc’s art. The six Mélodies persanes make a very attractive cycle and I hope that on a subsequent visit to our shores Degout will give us the whole work. Chabrier’s three songs came as a shock to me for their power and vision. By this point in the recital I was conscious of the fact that Degout was starting to push his delivery because the piano lid was open on full stick and too often, excellent as Hélène Lucas’s contribution was, he was being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of the instrument. At times it was quite a battle between the two performers, but I doubt that either of them was conscious of this.

Reynaldo Hahn’s two songs started the second half well; these helped our ears adjust to the sound of the two performers and balance was excellent. Ravel’s Histoires naturelles is a problematic work, the words are unusual, to say the least, and they seem to be resistant to musical setting. It’s a difficult work to perform correctly and to make interesting for an audience. Fauré wasn’t keen on the piece and neither am I, but if anyone can convince me that this is a work worthy of our attention then Degout is the man – he sought out, and found, the melodic interest in the piece and Ms Lucas brilliantly exploited the intricate lines of the piano part. This performance was stunning from every point of view. But what followed was even better!

Debussy’s late Trois ballades de Villon is music of such personal intent that it comes as no surprise that the short cycle isn’t performed all that often. But it takes a special singer to be able to interpret the three songs – addressed respectively to his love, to Our Lady, as a prayer, and to the women of Paris – and be able, in a very short space of time, to achieve both the chaste beauty of the middle song and the delicious chitter-chatter of the last. Degout did it and delivered a fine performance of great stature. As an encore, in response to the well-deserved ovation, Degout offered Poulenc’s Hôtel, the second of his 1940 Guillaume Apollinaire cycle Banalités – a perfect end to an almost perfect recital. I do feel that more consideration should be given to the soloist when deciding whether to have the piano lid open on full or half stick for, with certain soloists, as tonight, full stick is just too much.

Bob Briggs


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