Sandrine Piau (soprano), Susan Manoff (piano) – Wigmore Hall, London, live on BBC Radio 3, 5 October 2015
Listening link (open in a new window):
on the iPlayer until 4 November
In case you cannot hear the broadcast, here is a playlist of the music in this concert, from available versions on Spotify. Where possible the versions used are those recorded by Sandrine and Susan themselves.
What’s the music?
Mendelssohn: Neue Liebe (1834); Nachtlied (1847); Hexenlied (1827) (8 minutes)
Vincent Bouchot: Galgenlieder (1991-92) (9 minutes)
Richard Strauss: Die Nacht (1885); Morgen! (1894); Ständchen (1888) (10 minutes)
Debussy: Chansons de Bilitis (1898) (9 minutes)
Trad, arr. Britten: The Salley Gardens (1940); There’s none to soothe (1945); I wonder as I wander (c1940-41) (9 minutes)
What about the music?
Sandrine Piau and Susan Manoff begin with songs by Mendelssohn, an area of his output that doesn’t get a great deal of exposure in the concert hall, especially when you consider he wrote dozens of them! However the first song, Neue Liebe, shows an instance where the poetry of Heinrich Heine bought out the best in him.
Equally intriguing is the inclusion of music by Vincent Bouchot. Galgenlieder means ‘gallows songs’, dedicated to ‘the child that is within the man’, and Bouchot here uses some curious poems by Christian Morgentern, who appears to be writing about visions of hanged kings. They are strange and expressionist in nature, on occasion sounding like something the Second Viennese School of composers (especially Schoenberg) might write.
Debussy’s Chansons Bilitis are a relatively early work, setting the Sapphic poetry of Pierre Louys, who claimed these texts were adapted from the Greek – but Debussy knew otherwise. The flute of Pan was a topic that was particularly close to the composer at this time, and he used it as a basis for the famous orchestral piece Prélude a l’après-midi d’un faune.
Like Mendelssohn, Richard Strauss wrote a good number of songs, but apart from a few celebrated examples many of them lie undeservedly in the doldrums where the concert hall is concerned. Happily the recent celebrations of 150 years since the composer’s birth have brought many of the songs, which are highly original in form, back into the spotlight. Piau and Manoff give three of the most popular examples here, tending towards Strauss’s earlier work.
Britten amassed some 65 folksong arrangements for voice and piano so that he could perform them with his partner Sir Peter Pears. Often the piano parts are reinvented, casting the original melody into a very different light. The three examples in this concert are some of the very best.
A note first of all to say Arcana arrived late due to a prior engagement, and so took in the Mendelssohn and Bouchot from the BBC iPlayer link above.
However even in half a concert Sandrine Piau showed just why she is one of the finest sopranos around today. While we often hear her in 18th century repertoire (Baroque operas, mostly) she has a voice perfectly suited to the recital hall.
What really shone through about this concert was that she had clearly taken time to get to know the resonance of the Wigmore Hall, for in Britten’s setting of I wonder as I wander, where she is largely unaccompanied, the high notes found an echo from the roof perfectly. This completed a spellbinding trio of Britten folksong arrangements, Piau sitting at the piano with Susan Manoff for There’s none to soothe.
Manoff, despite apparently not feeling her best, clearly enjoyed the Richard Strauss selection, where her full bodied piano parts were beautifully shaded in their portrayal of nocturnal scenes. The Debussy Chansons de Bilitis were heady, perfumed songs that spoke of sultry nights of passion.
Beginning the concert were the Mendelssohn songs, showing a natural writer at work and enjoying the unhinged Hexenlied especially. The Bouchard was intriguing, for although the text was very strange indeed at times, there was much to commend the musical language of this little known composer. Piau and Manoff brought out the expressive elements of his work.
What should I listen out for?
1:53 – a challenging start for any singer, Neue Liebe is full of big leaps, high notes and jumpy chords from the piano.
4:15 – a much calmer scene is set for Nachtlied, though this reaches a peak of intensity and a rapturous high note, as the singer beckons the Nightingale to strike up.
7:09 – there is no mistaking the devilish edge to Hexenlied (Witches’ Song) as the piano begins with an urgent figure that the singer takes up. Hers is an unhinged vocal, while the piano depicts the lightning and wind that whisk the witch away ‘through the howling gale to the Brocken’.
10:06 Mondendinge (Moon things) – quite a spooky intro from the piano, and an otherworldly atmosphere even when the singer comes in.
12:20 – Der Hecht (The Pike) – another surreal story, one that finds the singer leaping about like a distressed fish at the start. Seemingly random movements but an effective finish
13:40 – Die Mitternachtsmaus (The Midnightmouse) – another eerie song of the night time, the scene set by the higher right hand of the piano, which seems to be enacting the midnight chimes. The singer’s voice is also high and quite tense.
16:45 – Das Wasser (Water) – Bouchot’s style is loosely tonal, and even here where the rippling textures of the piano obscure pure harmony there is a clear centre. Again the soprano voice is high and pretty tense, but it is arguably the piano that is the more descriptive of the two here.
17:51 – Galgenkindes Wiegenlied (Gallows child’s lullaby) – this is a song with much less movement, but the piano part still suggests the darkness of the night with the odd beam of moonlight.
22:34 – Die Nacht – Strauss immediately captures the rarefied atmosphere of the night. At 24:22 the mood darkens as Strauss turns the music towards the minor key – though this mood does not prevail, with soaring notes from the soprano before a soft close from the piano.
25:44 – Morgen! – Possibly Strauss’s most famous song, this begins with an extended prelude. Here the twilight hours are exquisitely rendered by the piano, before the hushed voice enters at 26:56. The song is totally unrushed, reaching the utmost serenity when the piano adds a postlude from 29:02, fading into stillness.
29:48 – Ständchen – here the piano is much more active, portraying the rustling wind Highest note reached at 31:42 before a jubilant postlude.
32:51 – La flûte de Pan – the piano immediately casts the spell of this poem through an enchanted and elaborate melody in the right hand. It is a beautiful intro and the mystery deepens with the soprano’s entry.
35:21 – La Chevelure – a sensual and heady poem, and the music wanders in a distracted state, almost falling under its own spell as the senses take hold.
38:39 – Le Tombeau des naiads – whereas the previous song was all about the sensuality of long hair, this song has icy tendrils and spreads a wintry chill, thanks to Debussy’s piano writing. There is however a more optimistic upturn near the end.
Trad, arr Britten
42:44 – The Salley Gardens – the first and one of the most popular of Britten’s folksong settings, The Salley Gardens has a powerful pull through its harmonies, which lie at the heart of the song, sitting underneath the simple melody.
45:18 – There’s none to soothe – Britten is one of the masters of economy, and that is clear in this simple yet deeply affecting setting, set in triple time but with an unusual stress on the second beat of the three. Piau’s voice soars beautifully above.
46:51 – I wonder as I wander – talking of economy, Britten splits the voice and piano for this incredibly powerful setting, keeping the purity of the melody on its own without accompaniment. You may be able to hear on headphones how Sandrine Piau moves around the stage while singing it, delivering the last verse with her back to the audience.
53:10 – Fantoches by Debussy, from the first book of Fêtes galantes. A lively, blustery encore lasting just a minute and a half.
55:47 – Le secret by Fauré, a lovely song whose two minutes are both intimate and serene.
With such a variety of music in the concert it is difficult to know what to suggest next. Perhaps a good next move is to hear Sandrine in her ‘day job’, as a soprano of real class in earlier music. Even the music of Mozart is quite late for her – but here is a link to her Desperate Heroines release, featuring high voice arias by the composer:
To go back a little further, here she is in an album from 2012 of music by J.S. Bach: