Patricia Petibon (soprano) and Susan Manoff (piano) – La Belle Excentrique, Wigmore Hall, Wednesday 16 December 2015
Review by Ben Hogwood
It isn’t often you see a rubber chicken as part of a song recital, and I would wager one has not been seen on the Wigmore Hall stage for quite some time. If ever! But this wasn’t just any song recital, this was a concert where soprano Patricia Petibon and pianist Susan Manoff asked questions of their audience, expanding the format but making them laugh and cry in the process.
The concert, a memorable Wigmore debut for Petibon, reminded us how regimented and serious some song recitals can be. Not a criticism you understand, for sometimes it is only right and proper to sit and listen to a singer and pianist making music of raw emotion. It can be one of the very best live experiences in classical music. But this was so very different, Petibon and Manoff marrying humourous music with songs of deep emotion, punctuated with well-chosen piano pieces.
La Belle Excentrique was the title given to the recital, which fell neatly into two parts. Part one began with understated beauty, the crystalline music of one of Reynaldo Hahn’s finest songs A Chloris a daring way to start, especially when sung so quietly. Yet gradually it became clear Petibon was here to have some fun, the actions at the end of the third Hahn song Quand je fus pris au pavillon a notice of intent. Soon the soprano was barking (Manuel Rosenthal’s Fido, Fido) and then Manoff donned a trunk for the same composer’s story of L’éléphant du Jardin des Plantes, both brilliantly done. Hats were donned for songs by Satie and Poulenc, while charm and heart-rending emotion took hold in two wonderful songs by Fauré.
The second half also moved between extremes. France, Spain and the Swiss Alps dovetailed beautifully for songs of powerful impact from lesser-known composers such as Henri Collet and Fernando Obradors, as well as underrated song composers Joaquín Turina and Joseph Canteloube, whose Chants d’Auvergne have fallen out of fashion in the last few decades. Petibon’s performance of La delaïssádo (The forsaken girl) proved this to be an oversight, matched by exceptional playing from Manoff who effortlessly deconstructed the orchestral parts. Then we moved back to farce, and an exaggerated performance of Leonard Bernstein’s song cycle La Bonne Cuisine. For this, Petibon and Manoff went the whole hog by dressing up as chefs and using props relating to the food they were describing. It was hilarious! The recital ended with a no holds barred performance of Lara’s popular song Granada, before two encores – the popular French song Parlez-moi d’amour and a short excerpt, The Cat, from Ravel’s opera L’enfant et les sortileges.
These two performers were a breath of fresh air on the Wigmore Hall stage, heightening our appreciation for 20th century song while questioning the conventional format of the song recital. The strongest possible recommendation I can give lies in the fact I have since purchased two of Petibon’s albums on Deutsche Grammophon, La Belle Excentrique and Melancolia (see Spotify below!) – and would wholeheartedly recommend and Susan Banoff as a concert experience to completely blow away the cobwebs.