Elizabeth Watts, Photo : Marco Borggreve
Elizabeth Watts (soprano), Julius Drake (piano) – Wigmore Hall, London, live on BBC Radio 3, 26 October 2015
Listening link (open in a new window):
on the iPlayer until 25 November
In case you cannot hear the broadcast, here is a Spotify playlist of the music in this concert, from available versions on Spotify (which do not include the Liszt song Quand tu chantes bercée).
What’s the music?
Liszt: 6 settings of poetry by Victor Hugo (dates are for first versions only): Enfant, si j’étais roi (1849); S’il est un charmant gazon (1844); Comment, disaient-ils (1842); La tombe et la rose (1844); Quand tu chantes bercée (c1844-45); Oh! quand je dors (1842) (21 minutes)
Debussy: Ariettes oubliées (1885-1887) (17 minutes)
Hahn: 4 Hugo settings: Rêverie (1888); Si mes vers avaient des ailes (1888); L’Incrédule (1893); Fêtes galantes (1892) (9 minutes)
What about the music?
A recital bringing together some richly varied settings of two French poets, Victor Hugo and Paul Verlaine.
It also gives us the opportunity to listen to some of the large output of Franz Liszt, who is best known for his piano music but whose songs have enjoyed greater prominence in recent years. He and the poet Victor Hugo were friends, meeting in Paris in the 1830s, and Liszt went on to set a number of his poems to music.
Debussy’s Ariettes oubliées (Forgotten Songs) is a cycle of six songs for voice and piano, based on a poem written by Paul Verlaine, who the composer knew and whose verse was a profound influence throughout the composer’s career.
We return to Victor Hugo for several settings by the Venezuelan-born French composer Reynaldo Hahn, who is best known for his song settings. This group of four includes Si mes vers avaient des ailes, the song that really brought Hahn to public attention and which, in the words of Graham Johnson, ‘has become his motto song’.
A note first of all to say Arcana did not attend this concert, so the review is directly from the radio performance.
What is abundantly clear is that Elizabeth Watts is becoming a soloist of real repute, and one who has a very impressive and diverse repertoire. It was especially gratifying to hear her accounts of the Hugo settings by Liszt, not heard much in the concert hall but invested with real passion here, Watts floating effortlessly through the high notes as Julius Drake set the scene. Drake is an experienced pianist in Liszt songs, and is in the process of recording his output for Hyperion – and his ability to find the detail to point up alongside the vocal line was a real asset.
The Debussy had an essential mystique that Drake was quick to create in his piano part, Watts controlling her voice wonderfully well in the tricky melodic intervals. Meanwhile the Hahn selection sparkled, showing off this composer’s flair for word setting as well as the natural chemistry between Watts and Drake.
What should I listen out for?
1:57 Enfant, si j’étais roi (Child, if I were king) translation here – a typically grand setting from Liszt, with a big piano part, while the soprano sings boldly above. A brave piece with which to start a recital! In the second verse the piano adopts a more threatening bass line as the soprano extols the virtue of a kiss from her lover.
5:13 S’il est un charmant gazon (If there’s a lovely grassy plot) translation here – a more gentle and loving song, this, with a similar mood to the opening of Brahms’ Violin Sonata no.2. The music flows with a mood of relative contentment.
7:41 Comment, disaient-ils (How then, asked he) translation here a nervy piano accompaniment immediately puts this song on each, though the floated higher vocal counters that somewhat. This is a short song but the high note at the end from the soprano carries a lasting impact.
9:49 La tombe et la rose (The tomb says to the rose) translation here This time we hear the soprano in a much lower range and with a fuller voice as Liszt takes on the much heavier text. There is weight in the piano part, too, though here as with a couple of the other songs it feels like Liszt has a short attention span.
13:44 Quand tu chantes bercée (When you sing in the evening) translation here This song has much softer contours, with a restful piano part and a relatively smooth vocal line for the soprano. That is not to say passion is lacking though, especially when the soprano sings ‘Chantez, ma belle’ (‘Sing, my pretty one’)
16:17 Oh! quand je dors (Oh! When I sleep) translation here As the title suggests here is a lullaby, though this one doubles as a love song. Again the soprano has to sing high, especially given the passion of Hugo’s text. The piano immediately sets the scene of rapture.
The words for Ariettes oubliées are here
24:12 – C’est l’extase langoureuse (It is ecstasy) A heady song as you might expect from the title, which hangs on the air heavily. This whole impression is helped by Debussy’s chromatic writing, with soprano and piano right hand often in unison. The rich harmonies and melodies might sound awkward in isolation but, in a performance such as this, they are totally natural.
27:28 – Il pleure dans mon cœur…(It weeps in my heart) One of Debussy’s most celebrated early songs, delighting – or finding sorrow, rather – in the sound of the rain ‘on the ground and on the roofs’. A wide range is called for on the part of the soprano, not to mention the restless yet easily flowing piano part.
30:28 – L’ombre de arbres (The shadow of the trees) ‘The shadow of the trees, in the mist-covered river’ find the soprano beginning in a lower range, the air thick with humidity. This is a more sorrowful lament, the piano essentially standing by while the singer emotes – nowhere more so than the high note of 32:06.
33:14 – Chevaux de bois (Merry-go-round) A brilliant evocation of the fairground, the merry-go-round burling around dizzily on the piano, over which the soprano sings of the hurrying horses. Debussy’s quick moving harmonies are ideally suited to this sort of setting. The song ends quietly.
36:31 – Green A love song. The soprano has to travel quite a way in the course of this song, from low asides to higher outpourings of intense feeling. The twinkling of the piano’s right hand provides an effective counterpoint.
38:36 – Spleen A downcast song, reflecting on how ‘all my despair is reborn’. This does still take place over some exotic harmony on the part of the composer, the song moving far and wide in its melodic and harmonic reach.
43:09 – Rêverie – translation here A halting figure on the piano feels like an offbeat waltz, accompanying the soprano as she sings, lingering on the word ‘kiss’. The song is relatively conventional in its structure.
45:11 – Si mes vers avaient des ailes (If my verses had wings) – translation here – a bright and positive love song, the singer clearly lost in thoughts of her beloved – and reaching some beautifully spun high notes along the way, with twinkling piano account. The last notes need particularly impressive control as the music slows.
47:52 L’Incrédule (The Sceptic) – translation here – a softly coloured but rather moving song, which has its conviction in the last lines, where the singer declares ‘And my faith is so deep in all that I believe in that I live for you alone’
50:11 Fêtes galantes – translation here – one of Hahn’s most endearing songs to close, the sparkling piano introduction keeping a detached feel as the singer spins higher notes above. The ‘shivering breeze’ is brilliantly evoked in the piano.
53:32 An encore of a Victor Hugo setting, L’Attente, (1840) from Richard Wagner. As Elizabeth Watts says to the audience, it’s not exactly easy – whether it’s the full bodied, high register vocal or the heavily congested piano part!
Something completely different to complement Elizabeth Watts’ artistry, and also to show just how versatile she is. This is a recently released album of vocal works by the Baroque composer Alessandro Scarlatti, given with The English Concert and Laurence Cummings: