Wigmore Mondays – Elizabeth Watts and Julius Drake

Elizabeth Watts, Photo : Marco Borggreve

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’.

Performance verdict

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!


Further listening

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:




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

French Song at the Wigmore Hall


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

Listening link (opens in a new window):


on the iPlayer until 21 July


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?


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.


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.


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.


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