United Kingdom Grieg, Wolf, Poulenc, Bizet and Dowland: Danielle de Niese (soprano) with Julius Drake (piano), Town Hall, Birmingham, 30.9.2012 (GR)
Ever since her portrayal of Cleopatra in the 2005 Glyndebourne production of Handel’s Giulio Cesare,Danielle de Niese has received upbeat reviews, whether on the opera stage or concert hall. Opening the Birmingham International Concert Season 2012/13 at Birmingham’s Town Hall on Sept 30th, she lived up to all the superlatives. And with a programme of twenty-six songs, all sung without a score-sheet in sight, her recall and stamina was without question.
After a couple of Dowland songs, almost as if to warm up, de Niese got down to the first major grouping of the afternoon, a set of eight songs by Grieg, his Op 67 entitled Haugtussa (The Mountain Maid). Based upon the poems of fellow Norwegian Arne Garborg, the cycle tells of the visions of a young shepherdess recalling the desires and heartaches she has experienced, each mood vividly captured by de Niese. Initially there was rejection in the air with Det Syng (Enticement) followed by the melancholy of the fate befallen this little maiden called Veslemøy. The character’s pastoral life was brightly told in Blåbaer-Li (Blueberry Hill) before the tenderness of Møte (The Encounter) hinted that their meeting might possibly have a happy resolution as ‘she falls blissfully asleep in his arms’. Despite being besotted in Elsk (Love) doubts began with the question ‘Will he really think of me tonight?’ Merriment abounded in the hip-hops of Killingdans (Kids’ Dance) bringing murmurs of approval from the auditorium; but it all went pear-shaped – movingly expressed by de Niese by means of Garborg’s graphic lines in Vond Dag (Evil Day). Finally the arch-like structure of the piece was completed in Ved Gjætle-Bekken (At Gjætle Brook) the audience palpably held by its poignant close. Throughout Grieg’s Op 67, the body language and colour variation of de Niese was exemplary. Julius Drake’s accompanist role created a great partnership: merging into the background when the voice dominated; balancing the dynamics during the hip-hops; reproducing the brook’s dolce et tranquillo. Grieg thought his Haugtussa was the best set of songs he had written and if he had heard the de Niese/Drake interpretation it would have done nothing to change his mind.
That bastion of German Lied Hugo Wolf followed – a composer whose dictum was prima le parole poi la musica. The six chosen bore this out: two each from three of his greatest collections – The Mörike Songs, The Spanish Songbook and The Italian Songbook. All on the subject of love, de Niese effortlessly adopted the successive shades of passion. The Mörike pair (No 12 & 13) were full of angst and pain. Then as the Spanish lover, de Niese was totally convincing: during No 34 Geh, Geliebter, geh jetzt, she fervently urged her partner to go before the morning dawns, before blissfully reflecting her fate in No 2 ‘in the shadow of my tresses.’ There was a lighter edge to the Italian pair. No 11 told of a girl yearning for a musician to love her; but judging by the diffident and stuttering notes of Drake, the violin player who turned up sounded as if he was struggling on Grade 2. No 46 – a Don Giovanni ‘Catalogue Song’ equivalent – was a humorous account of a man with lovers scattered around Italy; it also featured a significant contribution from Drake, a fabulous forte postlude.
After a well-earned interval, de Niese turned to another prolific songster Poulenc – his Fiançailles pour rire FP101 (Light-hearted Betrothal). What humour there is in this Poulenc set of six songs was subtle, but nevertheless they comprised an appealing collection. In I La Dame d’André,de Niese told it straight, the story of a young lady’s one night stand, posing the question whether her relationship would blossom or fade. The ability of de Niese to switch between moods was depicted in the second and third items: the slow pace of II Dans l’herbe, full of heartache at ‘a beautiful death’ her ‘en m’appelant’ was heart-searching; this was in sharp contrast to the hectic patter of III Il vole (He flies) comparing the flight of happiness to that of a crow. IV Mon cadaver est doux comme un gant (My corpse is as Limp as a glove) was my favourite of the Poulenc set – beautiful words by de Villeron, a poignant setting and movingly performed. In contrast to Wolf’s violinist heard previously, that of Poulenc in V Violon was positively virtuosic – another flamboyant display from Drake. More emotional expressions of wilted love by de Niese in VI Fleurs closed the cycle – but why entitle it light-hearted?
Four of Bizet’s Vingt Mélodies was the final group of songs, beginning with Chanson d’Avril. The opening command of de Niese to Lève-toi! Lève-toi! Le printemps vient de naître suggested that the time was right to get up and go at the birth of spring. Adieux de L’hostesse Arabe followed with phrases that reminded me of his Carmen opera; has she ever played the role? Our hostess for the afternoon was categorically the hostess with the mostess! La coccinelle (The Ladybird) was next, and this merry little ditty about a shy youth who at the request to remove a ladybird from a girl’s neck missed out on a chance of a kiss. Great fun and amusement all round! The final Bizet song was Tarantelle and it gave de Niese the opportunity to show that she can sing coloratura with the best of them.
It only remained for this glamorous soprano with the flashing smile to encore with Gershwin’s By Strauss from An American in Paris. Here was a soprano at the top of her form – a singer with great musicality who immersed herself in each piece, transmitting her love for song to a rapt audience. A most enjoyable afternoon and in the words of the opening Dowland number, ‘Come again’.