Empathetic Song Interpretations by Sandrine Piau

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Fauré, Liszt, Chausson, Debussy, Zemlinsky, Richard Strauss, Poulenc: Sandrine Piau (soprano), Roger Vignoles (accompanist) Wigmore Hall, London, 11.4.2012 (GD)

Fauré: Le papillon et la fleur. Au bord de l’eau. Après un rêve. Le secret. Les berceaux.
Der Fischerknabe. Oh! quand de je dors. Die Loreley
Amour d’ antan’.  Dans la forêt du charme et de l’enchantement. Les heures. Les Papillons
Ariettes oubliées
Liebe und Frühling. Das Rosenband. Frühlingslied
Richard Strauss:
Deux poèmes de Guillaume Apollinaire
Deux poèmes de Louis Aragon.

Why do we not hear more French song? Of course, we occasionally hear a French song  recital, but these are roundly outnumbered by German lieder recitals. I was immediately struck by both the charming economy of the first Fauré  song ‘Le papillon et la fleur’, and the beauty of the sung French language. This was all delivered with compelling empathy by Sandrine Piau. The song, which tells of the ephemeral beauty of the flight of the butterfly, with a semblance of a waltz melody, is one of Fauré’s earliest songs and is set to words by his first poetic love – Victor Hugo. Now we don’t immediately think of the author of Les Misérables as a poet, but it is worth recalling that Hugo was rated very highly as a poet by the likes of Proust, who also admired Fauré’s songs. Piau’s nuanced phrasing worked wonders in ‘Au bord de l’eau’ ( at the waters’ edge). Her sotto voce and long phrasing in ‘Tous deux, s’il glisse un nuage’ (telling of a cloud gliding by) had just the right flowing resonance without any suggestion of an actual vocal glissando!  Piau used very little vocal vibrato, but when she did deploy it, as in ‘Après un rêve’, especially in ‘Splendeurs inconnues, lueurs divine entrevues’ (the unknown splendours of celestial fires) it added the semblance of an almost ‘unheimlich’ shudder.

Piau has a very wide ranging tessitura, almost reaching the mezzo register in ‘Le secret que j’ai dit au jour, Et l’emporte avec mon amour’ from ‘Le secret’ (telling of the secret which would carry love away). Also, from the same song, the way she caressed the phrases around ‘Comme un grain d’encens il l’enflamme’ (like a grain of incense which would kindle the heart) was nothing short of magical. ‘Les Berceaux’ is based on several gentle rocking registers and in ‘Ne prennent pas garde aux berceaux que la main des femmes’ (pay no heed to the cradles rocked by women’s hands) Piau sustained the vocal line and attended to its many contrasts in mood and musical texture. After listening to these beautifully composed songs, beautifully sung by Piau, with suberb accompaniment from Roger Vignoles, I thought Fauré –  the song composer at least the equal of Robert Schumann, and sometimes surpassing Schumann in terms of tonal contrast and nuanced chromaticism. It is easy to understand how later Debussy was so influenced by this French master of song.  I know it is something of a cliché that no one can sing French like the French, but with Piau this was very much the case. It is not so much to do with clear, accurate pronunciation, which were all there, it is more to do with the texture, the grain in the voice (as Roland Barthes put it long ago) as heard in a particular copula or vocal transition.

The recital was interspersed with German lieder. Sandrin Piau’s German delivery didn’t quite match that of her mother tongue. Everything was splendidly lucid and clear but there were moments, especially in the Liszt and Zemlinsky songs, where I would have wished for a more Germanic texture. Yet having said this, I have rarely heard the ostinato leaps and octaves, in arguably Liszt’s best song ‘Die Loreley’ delivered with such elan. Die Loreley is set to a wonderful poem by Heinrich Heine and in ‘ Ergreift es mit wildem Weh; Er schaut nicht die Felsenriffe, Er schaut nur hinauf in die Höh ‘ (with wildly aching pain he does not see the rocky reefs, he only looks up to the heights )  Piau brought every fantastic textual/vocal inflection into vivid relief.  ‘Die Fischerknabe’ (The Fisherboy) set to words from Schiller’s ‘Wilhelm Tell’ is an early Liszt song and  its rippling arpeggios in the piano with a florid vocal line, brought out the most lyrical timbres in Piau’s singing, adding a Gallic elegance to this very German song.

With ‘Oh! quand je dors’ (Ah, while I sleep ) Piau returned to the French language again – another setting from Victor Hugo, much admired by Liszt, who always saw himself as a most cosmopolitan composer. In particular, Piau gave such lines as ‘Puis sur ma lèvre  où voltige une flamme’ (Then on my lips where a flame flickers) a dark, almost erotic glow.

Zemlinsky’s songs are appealing in the sense that they are so little performed. The three songs heard tonight all come from the composer’s earlier student years. Of particular interest was ‘Das Rosenband’ set to a poem by Klopstock. Piau’s vocal diversity and wonderful sense of contrast was especially compelling in the lines ‘Ich sah sie an; mein Leben hing mit diesem Blick an ihrem Leben’ ( I gazed on her; with that gaze my life became entwined with hers) where she managed a note/tone of estatic recognition, but also managed to keep this within a soundscape of ambiguity and mystery. The Heine poem ‘Frühlingslied’ (Song of Spring) was also sung with a lyrical flow, but also registering a more sad note of unrequited love. But overall I had the impression here that the quality of Zemlinsky’s music did not quite match the quality of the poems, particularly those by Heine and Klopstock.  Piau brought these songs to life tonight in a way which makes me eager to read more Heine and Klopstock.

Richard Strauss’s ‘Mädchenblumen’ come from a number of sets of songs he wrote in his earlier years. As would be expected from a composer who had a natural skill in writing for the female voice, all these songs are well crafted. Of this set of four songs of particular note is ‘Wasserrose’ (Water Lily) with delicate piano accompaniment in the top register and the sustained but contrasted vocal line. Piau’s magnificent top register, with not a sign of vibrato or distortion, suited these songs perfectly.  I am thinking in particular of lines like ‘Mondenscheine, Mit dem ihr der silberne Schimmer gemeinsam’ (moonlight whose silver gleam it shares), where Piau was totally in tune with the silky eloquence of Strauss’s vocal style. All this made me wonder how she would sound in one of Stauss’s later operas, say, Zerbinetta from ‘Ariadne auf Naxos’? Tonight’s programme note writer makes the point that Strauss focused on his compositions as commodities. How much would they sell for? Could he make a profit on selling earlier work? Of course, many composers were interested in the commercial aspect of composing, but with these songs, professionally composed as they are, I found some of Strauss’s composing technique slightly formulaic – even contrived – full of thematic effects which become a tad predictable, and which Strauss developed and exploited in his later operas and orchestral compositions.

Chausson’s music, particularly his songs, are not much played now. The four chosen for tonight’s recital spanned Chausson’s composing  career. ‘Dans la forêt du charme et de l’enchantement’ (In the forest of charm and enchantment) written in 1898, just one year before Chausson’s untimely death, and set to a poem by Jean Moreas, is of particular interest. The poem itself comes from the Romantic imagination, full of enchanted forests, gnomes, and fairies, but Chausson uses these fantastic evocations to experiment particularly in tonal colour, both in the voice and the accompaniment. The shimmering cascades, venturing occasionally into a kind of bi-tonality were later developeded by Debussy. The vocal line is also most evocative here, ‘Dans la forêt du charme et des merveilleux rites, Gnomes compatissants, pendant que je dormais’ ( In the forest of charm and magical rites, while I sleep, O tender gnomes). Piau here relished the rich harmonies, the rich colourations, but also managed to intone the sense of an almost child-like fascination with fairies, gnomes etc.  Similarly ‘Les heures’ (The hours) set to a poem by Camille Mauclair, charmed with beautifully evocative phrases like ‘En chantant jusqu’a mourir, avec un triste sourire’ (singing unto death with a sad smile) found Piau intoning an almost spectral but flowing vocal line. ‘Amour d’antan’ set to a poem by Maurice Buchor and the Gautier setting of ‘Les papillons’, both had similar qualities of  charm and allure, beautifully realised by Piau. Chausson studied in Paris with Massenet and this is no doubt one reason he developed such skills in vocal composition. I don’t think his songs, beautiful as they are, quite manage to resonate at the same level as those by Fauré; and one can only speculate how Chausson would have developed, had he lived longer. But the songs heard tonight augur well.

Piau came into her own with Debussy’s early masterpiece ‘Ariettes oubliées’ (Forgotten airs ). In this song cycle Debussy was probably the first composer after Schubert to further develop the ‘cycle’ as a carefully thought out succession of tonalities, the alternating rhythmic movement between duple and triple time etc.  Also, and even more than Fauré or Chausson, Debussy developed a corresponding meticulousness in terms of textual (or should I say tonal?) adherence to the text  All these songs are set to poetry by Paul Verlaine who, like Debussy, was himself an experimental modernist. But it is important to realise that the kind of meticulous correspondence with the text developed by Debussy was not so much to do with narrative adherence as of adhering to and complementing, the rhythmic shifts and textual discontinuities of the poem. This poetic idiom was also developed by Rimbaud and Mallarme, the latter’s ‘L’après-midi d’un faune’  forming the sound-scape of Debussy’s early orchestral work of that name. In these early songs Debussy demonstrates how music can prolong a poetic text without adding what the composer termed a ‘thick layer of meaning’. The voice goes from long languorous, lyrical curves to intimate whispers. And this is the exact quality we hear in the first song  ‘C’est extase’ ( It is rapture) in Piau’s long langurous phrases in ‘C’est l’extase langoureuse; c’est la fatigue amoureuse’ (it is langourous rapture, it is amorous fatigue) with all its allusions to a fading desire. I could comment on all six songs of the cycle but I will, for reasons of review economy,  confine my final comments to the song ‘Spleen’. The opening lines ‘Les roses étaient toutes  rouges, Et les lierres étaient tout noirs’ (the roses were red and the ivy was black) initiates the strong sense of contrast, radiantly realised by Piau. In ‘Spleen’ which lasts just over two minutes, Debussy achieves a unity of tone while creating the maximum expressive contrast, and also contrasts in abrupt key changes, denoting the red of the roses and the black of the ivy. The voice part ranges from the frisson of  lifeless tremors of resignation to the extreme, harrowing violence of revolt. And with ‘Chère, pour peu tu te bouges, renaissent tous mes desespoirs. (Dear, at your slightest move, all my despair revives) the pain of forgetting love is fully realised. In ‘Ariettes oubliées’ the piano, even more than in Faure, is not deployed as a mere accompamiment, but as in dialogue with the vocal line. This was particularly the case in ‘L’ombre des arbres’ (the shadow of trees) where the piano plays the ‘paysage blême’ (pale landscape). This landscape role of the piano is in sharp contrast to the vocal line ranges from near-speech to poignant cry.  Piau and Vignoles played in perfect dialogue in these mood-scapes of love, loss and pain.

The recital ended with four songs by Poulenc, two to poems by Guillaume  Apollinaire, and two set to words by Louis Aragon. The first Apollinaire song ‘Dans le jardin d’Anna’ (In Anna’s Garden ) is a kind of allegory of French pastoral life in the 18th century. There are several allusions here to Germany ‘Ma grand-mère qui se refuse a comprendre l’allemand’ ( My grandmother who refuses to understand German ). Perhaps such references are anticipatory allusions to the forthcoming years of German occupation 1940 – 1944. The poem was written in 1938. As the programme note writer tells us, ‘the poem is apparently set in Alsace, the North East French region which signifies both defeat by Germany, and French unity, Alsace with Lorraine regained after 1918.’ Piau’s long phrases and subtle vocal dynamics captured this pastoral fantasy to perfection. The other Apollinaire setting evokes a Parisien scene ‘Allons plus vite’ (Move along ). It could almost be seen as a parody a poem from Baudelaire’s ‘Les fleurs du mal’. But Apollinaire the modernist inflects more serious sentiments with more ‘down to earth’ street elements. You have to ‘move along’ quickly lest you are tempted to loiter on the Rue Boulevard de Grenelle, where ‘lace is flaunted’! Piau relished the the irony of the song caught by quick juxtapositions of melody and quite jazzy rhythms, especially in the piano accompaniment.

With the Aragon poems of 1943 we find ourselves well into the dark years of  German occupation. The first poem ‘C’ refers to the Ponts-de- Cé  where, as the program notes tell us, thousands of refugees, including Aragon himself, woulsd attempt to cross the Loire ahead of the advancing German army. With lines like ‘La Loire emporte mes pensées avec les voitures versées’ (The Loire bears my thoughts away with the overturned jeeps) the bridge here becomes a strong metaphor for escape, freedom, however risky.  Piau’s repetition of the ce sound which ends every line, had a mesmerising effect. The second song ‘Fêtes galantes’ is all jazzy cabaret rhythms and vocal runs, up and down. But underlying this gaiety is a  darker note, ‘On voit sous les ponts passer des noyés (you see drowned corpses floating beneath bridges) a reminder of the Paris occupation. And with the line ‘On voit des marlous en cheval-japon (you see pimps in kilts) we are reminded that even pimps and prostitutes had to recode their already multiple identities. Piau almost sang this like a cabaret number. obviously enjoying the risqué elements of the song.

As an encore Piau chose the beautifully reflective song ‘Claire de lune’ by Fauré,  Op. 46, No 2. She gave a wonderfully flowing sense to the gentle melodic turns.

Ideally I would have preferred to hear Sandrine Piau in an all French programme, with some songs say by Henri Duparc, or Saint-Saëns, but the German songs worked well, especially the little heard songs by Zemlinsky.  Piau’s lucid and  nuanced tonal/vocal clarity, I would say, is due in no short measure to her experience of singing in the baroque repertoire with composers like Rameau, Lully, Campra, Handel and Vivaldi, with a training from the likes of Harnoncourt, Herreweghe, Jacobs and Christie. This is not the traditional trajectory for French sopranos, but it certainly pays off in terms of agility, elegance, finesse and vocal range. And if we remember that no less a French composer than Debussy had studied, and thought highly of the French baroque in particular, perhaps there is not the level of incommensurability with the lyrical song as one would initially expect.  I will certainly be looking out for future recitals from Sandrine Piau, regardless of what she chooses to sing.

Geoff Diggines