Wigmore Mondays – Ailish Tynan & Malcolm Martineau in French song

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Ailish Tynan (soprano, above), Malcolm Martineau (piano)

Wigmore Hall, London, 9 May 2016

written by Ben Hogwood

Audio (open in a new window)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b079m13q

Available until 8 June

What’s the music?

Fauré Cinq mélodies de Venise (1891) (12 minutes)

Debussy Fêtes galantes Set 1 (1892) (7 minutes)

Hahn Fêtes galantes (1892) (2 minutes)

Ravel Sur l’herbe (1907) (2 minutes)

Fauré Clair de lune (1887) (3 minutes)

Hahn À Chloris (1916) (3 minutes)

Poulenc Fiançailles pour rire (1939) (13 minutes)

Spotify

Ailish Tynan has recorded some of the Fauré songs in this recital, and in case the broadcast cannot be heard they are on the playlist below – together with other versions of the songs by Debussy, Poulenc and Hahn:

About the music

The contrast between these Verlaine settings is fascinating. Fauré’s Venetian set is heady music that flows, melodically rich but harmonically even more so, its flowing nature reflecting his ‘barcarolle’ piano writing and the watery setting.

Debussy’s, written just a year later, could almost be from another planet, with deep blue colours invoked by the singer and piano as they explored the mysterious worlds of the poet.

The central selection of songs shows off the abundance of French song writing talent at the turn of the century, while Poulenc’s Fiançailles pour rire, a brief but intensely concentrated cycle and the composer’s most popular for the female voice, explores extremes of emotion. It is a classic example of Poulenc’s bittersweet but utterly compelling ways of word setting.

Performance verdict

malcolm-martineau

Malcolm Martineau (piano)

French song lends itself well to an hour-long recital program, and in Ailish Tynan and Malcolm Martineau’s Wigmore Hall lunchtime concert we explored the extraordinary poetry of Paul Verlaine through the musical eyes of Fauré, Debussy and Hahn.

You would not have known Tynan was standing on for the indisposed Angelika Kirschlagers, so surefooted was her partnership with Martineau, and with her compelling performances, aided by expressive gestures, she took us on an instinctive and fascinating tour.

Fauré’s Venetian songs were glorious, and Tynan’s ability to vary her vibrato was invaluable, while Martineau had the essential Fauré ‘flow’ at the piano.

Debussy’s Fêtes galantes had the requisite mystery, while Hahn’s celebrated A Chloris sparkled in this partnership, but it was in the Poulenc cycle Fiançailles pour rire where Tynan really shone. From the breathless Il vole to the sorrowful Dans l’herbe, where the darkness at the very edge of Poulenc’s music was drawn in, this was a compelling performance. A beautiful encore, Fauré’s Nell, was followed by a characteristically funny introduction to Dave Frishberg’s Another Song About Paris, where both performers’ humour sent the Wigmore Hall audience away smiling.

What should I listen out for?

Fauré

1:38 Mandoline A jaunty song describing the ‘gallant serenaders…beneath singing boughs’. The grey moon at the end is suitably evoked by the flowing piano.

3:32 En sourdine The hazy twilight is immediately obvious in this rather sensual song, with a full timbre from the soprano and an accompaniment typical of Fauré’s broad, flowing style.

6:35 Green A greater urgency to this song, a heady statement of devotion with a spring-like air.

8:25 A Clymène The piano introduction evokes the ‘mystical barcarolles’ of the opening line of this song, an exotic and heavily perfumed statement with some awkward gaps between notes for the singer!

11:05 C’est l’extase This song (translating as ‘It is rapture’) certainly has a rarefied air, the soprano in a higher register as she swoons of the ‘delicate, fresh murmuring’ and the ‘subdued lament’ of two lovers.

Debussy

15:10 En sourdine A very different setting of this poem from Debussy, with a distant, mysterious picture immediately evoked by the piano. The singer is subdued and the tempo is much more deliberate than the Fauré setting.

17:58 Fantoches The swirl of the piano transports us to a completely different world, with quick glances and urgent musical statements, the soprano sweeping up to a top ‘A’ and back towards the end.

19:20 Clair de lune Debussy was to write a more famous Clair de lune for piano alone, but this one is just as evocative of the moonlight, somehow evoking the dark blue colours in its lustrous beauty.

23:29 Hahn Fêtes galantes The clanging octaves of the piano introduce a song that has a similar stop-start feel to the first Fauré song in this concert. The end is brilliantly done.

25:30 Ravel Sur l’herbe This song (which translates as On the lawn) is a rather bizarre Verlaine poem, a conversation between an abbot and some shepherdesses. Ravel captures all the back and forth between the speakers over an elusive piano line.

27:43 Fauré Clair de lune Fauré’s setting of moonlight has more defined lines than Debussy’s, and a longer piano introduction to set the scene, but has an understated beauty, supported again by a flowing accompaniment.

30:47 Hahn À Chloris Hahn’s celebrated love song is clearly influenced by Bach in its stately introduction, after which the soprano sings of pure, unconditional happiness in love. Very much a case of ‘less is more’!

Poulenc

35:09 La Dame d’André A song of uncertainty, describing a man about to marry who worries about his wife and if he’ll love her in the future. Poulenc’s response is appropriately worrisome – but the softer chord at the end suggests he’ll be alright!

36:35 Dans l’herbe A sorrowful and tortured song, particularly in the second verse – though there is a lightness of texture also. This brings in the darkness Poulenc often has at the very edge of his music.

38:38 Il vole Some breathless observations from the soprano in this song, with happiness elusive but not too far away. ‘I want my stealer to steal me’, she concludes.

40:38 Mon cadavre est doux comme un gant Once again a shadow falls over the music, and this strange song of a corpse casts its spell. With long, high notes it is a particularly tricky one for the soprano. Her last note (43:02) is telling, as it resolves the whole song.

43:26 Violon A strange air is around this song, because both soprano and piano operate at the highs and lows of their ranges. There is dark humour, too, as the singer tells of how ‘I love those long wailings’ of the violin. The harmonic language is exotic but restless too, until a clipped chord at the end.

45:27 Fleurs A simple air is around this song, which shows how Poulenc can make beautiful sounds from apparently very little. The text is repeated very quietly to a soft but rather sad close.

Encores

49:02 Fauré Nell (1878) The flowing piano and floated soprano line indicate this is a song of adoration. It is the sort of song that flings the doors wide open, though Fauré’s rapture is always just a little reserved.

51:32 Dave Frishberg Another song about Paris (4 minutes) A classic cabaret song, brilliantly written with just the right amount of humour in text and performance!

Further listening

Ailish Tynan’s disc of Fauré comes highly recommended, and can be heard on Spotify here:

If however you’d like to hear her in the music of her homeland, Ireland, An Irish Album is self-recommending:

Under the Surface at the Proms – British composers

Prom 26, 5 August 2015 – BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Tadaaki Otaka at the Royal Albert Hall

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Ailish Tynan and Tadaaki Otaka performing Grace Williams’ Fairest of Stars at the BBC Proms Picture (c) Chris Christodoulou

Only the BBC Proms could come up with a night like this, a programme of partially or wholly neglected British music flattering not only the composers but the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, who had clearly invested a lot of rehearsal time.

Their greatest triumph came last, the Symphony no.2 of William Walton, written in 1957 but receiving only its fourth ever performance at the festival and its first since 1996. Walton’s First gets all the glory in his symphonic output, and understandably so – it’s bold, has strength of character, some terrific tunes and bright orchestral colours. Yet the Second deserves far more, as conductor Tadaaki Otaka showed us here:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02yxs45/player

Although it is a much more anxious and questioning piece it is tightly structured, its melodies unusual but somehow memorable too. The first movement tune has a steep incline to its melody but remains in the head, and certainly did so after this performance, beautifully coloured as it was with orchestral piano and glockenspiel. The second movement had softer colours but was equally worrisome, while Walton, thumbing his nose at ‘serial’ composers who had opted out of tonality, uses all twelve tones in his theme for the finale, in a tuneful sense. Here they were hammered home in orchestral unison, and the climax of the work was hugely impressive.

Earlier we heard some better known works from Walton – a bracing Spitfire Prelude and Fugue – and Elgar, his first orchestral work the Froissart Overture, played with a smile on its face.

Then it was over to do two very different Williams. Ralph Vaughan Williams completed his Concerto accademico, for violin and string orchestra, in 1925. It pays explicit homage to Bach but not in the way Stravinsky and co liked to do at the time. The composer saw this as a much more tuneful exercise, using folk-based material in the process. Listen here:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02yxlqh/player

Despite a good performance the piece remains a curiosity. The first movement was dogged and rather foursquare, the music pressing on rather grimly, so it was left to the second movement to bring what felt like more genuine emotion, bringing to mind the slow movement of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto no.1 as it did so. Chloë Hanslip, the excellent soloist, was rich in tone both here and in the finale, which reverted to brisk music but in a much more accessible way this time, with a soft-hearted closing section. This was, for me, not the composer’s best.

Grace Williams, a Welsh composer who was a pupil of Vaughan Williams, is not heard much in the concert hall – but Fairest of Stars, for soprano voice and orchestra, suggested she should be. Her writing for the voice was elevated by Ailish Tynan, who looked ready to burst into song as soon as she appeared on stage. Tynan’s voice was the perfect foil for this music, soaring above the clouds brought by the orchestra, and although the words were not always abundantly clear because of the thicker scoring, very much in the Richard Strauss vein, their sentiment was. The top ‘C’ Tynan hit before the end had to be heard to be believed, the crowning glory of the concert’s first half. Listen to the piece here:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02yxqzy/player

The last few years have seen the Proms bring a number of major but neglected British works in from the cold – we have had music by Moeran, Alwyn, Havergal Brian and Howells to name just a few – and it is heartening to see them continuing that tradition. This night was a great success; let’s hope many more will follow.

There will be more Under the Surface features as the Proms progress, exploring lesser known pieces and composers at the festival

Ailish Tynan and James Baillieu – French Song at the Wigmore Hall

French Song at the Wigmore Hall

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Ailish Tynan (soprano), James Baillieu (piano) – Wigmore Hall, London, live on BBC Radio 3, 22 June 2015

Listening link (opens in a new window):

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b05zh7pr

on the iPlayer until 21 July

Spotify

In case you cannot hear the broadcast, I have put together a Spotify playlist of most of the music in this concert, including recordings the artists have made where possible. The playlist can be found below:

What’s the music?

Hahn: Fêtes galantes; En sourdine; A Chloris (various) (9 minutes)

Poulenc: La courte paille (1960) (11 minutes)

Poulenc: Trois poèmes de Louise de Vilmorin (1937) (7 minutes)

Hahn: Venezia – Chansons en dialecte vénitien (1901) (16 minutes)

What about the music?

There is something rather special about a recital of French songs, and this intriguing program brings together one of its best exponents – the soprano Ailish Tynan – and one of the best up and coming accompanists, pianist James Baillieu. Of course to call him an ‘accompanist’ recognises just how important that role is, setting the tone and providing the colour.

The two composers here are well matched, despite their very different styles of writing. Reynaldo Hahn, born in Venezuela but moving to Paris when three years old, is best known for his songs, especially settings of Victor Hugo and Paul Verlaine. The BBC Radio 3 announcer Sara Mohr-Pietsch sums up the songs in the first trio as ‘a group of young men serenading their beloveds, the piano imitating a mandolin’ (Fêtes galantes), ‘a muted nocturnal love song’ (En sourdine) and ‘a love poem set with a loving nod to Bach (A Chloris). In contrast the cycle of five songs Venezia glorifies the gondoliers in the city, setting it as ‘the elegant playground of the rich and famous’, in Graham Johnson’s words.

Francis Poulenc, meanwhile, is completely different, writing with economy but also with an appealing brashness and humour that mean he gets away with some pretty outrageous settings. There are touching moments too, though, and in his last song cycle La coute paille (The short straw) he sets seven nonsense rhymes, a present for realised in music for the singer Denise Duval, so that she could sing them to her young boy. The simplicity of Poulenc’s musical language is perfectly suited to the text.

Complementing this is a short mini-cycle of poems set in 1937 to the poetry of another good friend, Louise de Vilmorin.

Performance verdict

Ailish Tynan is in her element in this sort of program, and the combination of Poulenc with Hahn is not one to miss. Poulenc can never resist humour in his songs and Tynan makes it her mission to seek it out, from the zany and oddball moments of La coute paille to the heady eroticism of his three de Vilmorin settings.

The performance of Venezia is glorious, and even listening on the radio you can tell just how much fun she gets from Che pecà. Before then however there are the heady heights of La barcheta, Tynan’s voice both flexible and incredibly well controlled.

James Baillieu’s setting of each scene is also carefully managed and vividly painted.

What should I listen out for?

Hahn

1:11 – Fêtes galantes A lively song, begun by the clang of the piano in the upper register, and a playful interplay between him and the singer, who has quite an unusual contour to the melodic line.

3:05 – En sourdine (Softly) A slower and much more languorous affair this, and it’s easy to imagine a hot and sultry evening where nobody is able to sleep. Verlaine’s text has something else in mind, reflected by Tynan’s wonderful higher note at 6’12” or thereabouts.

6:42 – À Chloris (To Chloris) the tread of the bass line and the profile are indeed similar to Bach, a kind of equivalent to his Sleepers Awake. Baillieu introduces the song with an admirable calm, before the rapturous entry of the singer. This rather wonderful song finishes softly at 10:08.

Poulenc

La courte paille (The short straw) – with words here

11:37 – Le sommeiil (Sleep) A light and graceful song to start the cycle – though there is a dark underside to it, as ‘sleep is on vacation’ and the mother is frustrated.

13:35 – Quelle aventure! (What an adventure!) This song trips along with outbursts in the higher register of the voice, reflecting the nonsense text of the flea pulling an elephant in a carriage. A surreal dream!

14:46 – La reine de cœur (The Queen of Hearts) This sleepy song depicts the enchantment of the queen, beckoning the listener into her castle.

16:40 – Ba, be, bi, bo, bu The nonsense is evident in the spiky piano part – depicting the cat who has put his boots on! – and in Tynan’s shrieks and whoops, brilliantly stage managed. It’s all over in a flash!

17:16 – Les anges musiciens (The musician angels) A more sombre and graceful affair, again suggesting the onset of sleep as the angels play Mozart on their harps

18:42 – Le carafon (The baby carafe) The alternation in the vocal part between swoops and gliding notes gives an indication of the surreal nature of the text.

20:01 – Lune d’Avril (April moon) Initially lost in thought, this final song of the cycle builds to an impressive climax

Trois poèmes de Louise de Vilmorin

23:45 – Le garçon de Liège (The boy of Liège) A fast moving and breathless song with plenty of ‘wrong’ notes in the piano part.

25:16 – Au-delà A colourful piano introduction alternating between two chords as the singer goes on a breathless voyage of self-examination.

26:43 – Aux officiers de la Garde Blanche (To the officers of the White Guard) A thoughtful mood runs through this song, which Graham Johnson notes to be unusual in Poulenc’s output for its contemplation.

Hahn

Ailish Tynan introduces this cycle as a portrayal of ‘sultry, steamy, sensual Venice – where young men lure you into gondolas’!

32:18 – Sopra l’acqua indormenzada (Asleep on the water) This song is notable for its high and clear sound from the soprano, as she entreats her subject to join her in the boat. As part of this she stylishly glides between notes, occasionally sliding between them (a technique known as ‘portamento’)

36:01 – La barcheta (The little boat) The boat itself is home to simmering passion in a minor key. There is a really nice ornamentation to the melody, then a vocalise on the word ‘Ah’ at the end of each verse.

39:26 – L’avertimento (The warning) An urgent song warning the lads off ‘the lovely Nana’, who ‘has the heart of a tiger’. There is an impressive outburst at the end.

41:02 – La biondina in gondoleta (The blonde girl in the gondola) A slower and longer song, describing the raptures of an encounter with the blonde girl. Heady music, with a breathless final verse!

45:35 – Che pecà! (What a shame) Described by Tynan as ‘one of my favourite songs of all time’, this is a stuttering march, perhaps suggesting the rickety man of the text. Tynan’s voice rings out on the high notes, before the ‘Che pecà’ response, a distinctive reply, falls lower down the scale to comedic effect.

Encores

48:59 The boy From… by Mary Rogers, with words by Stephen Sondheim. A send-up of The Girl from Ipanema. You may be able to hear Ailish dedicating the song to the Director of Wigmore Hall, John Gilhooly, before vividly illustrating her comic powers!

52:41 – Extase by the French composer Henri Duparc (1848-1933) The other side of the singer in a carefully controlled but poignant account.

Further listening

If you enjoyed this recital then the next recommendation can only be for more Ailish Tynan, for she is wonderful in French song. Here she is in a disc of Fauré, with the pianist Iain Burnside. Well worth hearing for the composer’s open-air writing style!

For more concerts click here