Wigmore Mondays – Véronique Gens & Susan Manoff in French song

Véronique Gens (soprano, above, © Franck Juery) & Susan Manoff (piano, below)

Hahn Néère; Trois jours de vendange

Duparc Chanson triste; Romance de Mignon

Chausson Le Charme; Les Papillons; Hébé

Hahn Quand je fus pris au pavillon; Le Rossignol des lilas; A Chloris

Chausson Le Chanson bien douce; Le Temps des lilas

Hahn Études latines – Lydé; Tyndaris; Pholoé; Phyllis; Le Printemps

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 8 May, 2017

Listen to the BBC broadcast here

Written by Ben Hogwood

This Wigmore Hall concert proved an ideal opportunity for listeners to venture off the beaten track in the richly rewarding world of French art song. It also seemed doubly appropriate in the wake of the presidential election the previous day that Véronique Gens should be on hand, for she is one of the best French singers around. In Susan Manoff she had a more than able partner to match her every move, and the two based their program on a recent Gramophone award-winning recital disc.

The concert was bookended by songs from Reynaldo Hahn, including excerpts from his Études latines. The serious Néère (from 4:02 on the broadcast) searched for a lost love, Gens a yearning presence, but Trois jours de vendange (Three days of vintaging) was a bigger celebration.

Attention turned to Henri Duparc, whose incredibly small musical output is led by his fine songs. Few are better than Chanson triste (11:01), which was powerfully delivered by Gens, set in the moonlight portrayed so vividly by Manoff’s piano. Romance de Mignon (14:00) offered a little more daylight, another passionate utterance in thrall to his hero Wagner.

It was a short stylistic shift to the songs of Ernest Chausson, Gens choosing a really wonderful selection that should be far better known. The partnership with Manoff was at its best here, the piano fluttering relentlessly in Les papillons (21:35) without settling, while Gens’ playful lines danced above. Le charme (20:00) and Hébé (23:05), two other songs from the same early set, were equally winsome. These were balanced by three more Hahn songs, and while the perky Quand je fus pris au pavillon (25:52) and melodious nightingale (Le rossignol des lilas, 27:15) were nicely done they were always going to be in the shadow of Á Chloris (29:17), its imitation of a Bach aria absolutely on the money in this performance.

Two more Chausson songs followed – the urgent Le Chanson bien douce (32:30) and softly majestic Le Temps des lilas (35:14) – and then we moved on to a quintet of Hahn works to finish. Four of these were from the Études latines (from 41:02), while Le Printemps (The Spring) literally flung wide the doors of the hall at (49:41). The quartet of studies were lyrically quite amusing while musically thoughtful, often finding the singer in a rather dishevelled state – especially the thoughtful Pholoé (45:19) and Phyllis (46:46). The closing Le Printemps celebrated the season which until now seems rather reluctant to arrive in the UK!

A generous selection of encores completed a memorable recital. We were treated to Les roses d’Ispahan, a lovely song by Gabriel Fauré (52:20), then an Offenbach song Le Corbeau et le Renard (56:20), and finally PoulencLes Chemins de l’amour (The pathways of love) (59:28)

Further listening

You can hear the album Gens and Manoff made with much of this material on Spotify:

For further French song listening, bringing in the worlds of Debussy and Fauré, try this wonderful selection with pianist Roger Vignoles:

Patricia Petibon and Susan Manoff at the Wigmore Hall – La Belle Excentrique

petibon-manoff

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.

Wigmore Mondays – Dreams in the night with Sandrine Piau and Susan Manoff

sandrine-piau

Sandrine Piau (soprano), Susan Manoff (piano) – Wigmore Hall, London, live on BBC Radio 3, 5 October 2015

Listening link (open in a new window):

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06fljk4

on the iPlayer until 4 November

Spotify

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.

https://open.spotify.com/user/arcana.fm/playlist/4cTJZxw7IZDoP2W2Mrs3H5

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.

Performance verdict

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?

Mendelssohn

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’.

Bouchot

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.

Richard Strauss

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.

Debussy

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.

Encores

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.

Further listening

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:

https://open.spotify.com/album/3beRQIuFsm82SecRUz8GyY

To go back a little further, here she is in an album from 2012 of music by J.S. Bach:

https://open.spotify.com/album/1eqvWZu0VVPszG1PGXXQoC