Thoughtfully Conceived Journeys in Song from Christiane Karg and Malcolm Martineau

AustriaAustria Salzburg Festival (3) – Wolf, Montsalvatge, Duparc, Ravel, Hahn, Koechlin, Poulenc, and Barber: Christiane Karg (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano). Mozarteum, Salzburg, 11.8.2015 (MB)

Wolf Kennst du das Land; Mir ward gesagst, du reisest in die Ferne; Mein Liebster singt am Haus im Mondenscheine; Mein Liebster ist so klein; Ich ließ mir sagen und mir ward erzählt; Ich hab’ in Penna einen Liebsten wohnen; Sagt, seid Ihr es, feiner Herr; In dem Schatten meiner Locken; Klinge, klinge, mein Pandero
MontsalvatgeCinco canciones negras
Duparc L’Invitation au voyage
Ravel Cinq mélodies populaires grecques
HahnLydé; Vile potabis; Tyndaris
KoechlinChanson d’Engaddi, op.56 no.1; La Chanson d’Ishak de Mossoul, op.84 no.8; Le Voyage, op.84 no.2
PoulencVoyage à Paris; Montparnasse; Hyde Park; Hôtel
BarberSolitary hotel; Sure on this shining night


One of the most tiresome clichés of contemporary life – and the competition is stiff – is that of the ‘journey’. It perhaps reached its bathetic nadir – I say ‘perhaps’, since I cannot claim to have read the book – in the title of Tony Blair’s autobiography. (Yes, Tony: what really matters most about the invasion of Iraq is how it affected you and your ‘journey’.) How refreshing it was, then, to have an intelligently programmed recital which presented an array of different journeys, actual and anticipated, in excellent performances from Christiane Karg and Malcolm Martineau.

We began with Wolf and specifically with Goethe (not, one suspects, artists with whom our beloved ex-Prime Minister has spent much time). There was nothing of the warm up – how could there be? – to Kennst du das Land? Karg sang as if reaching out – not, I hasten to add, in the sense of a Blairite ‘journey’ – towards the land where lemons blossom, Martineau’s piano part offering Lisztian urgency. On the level of small detail – slightly lingering upon ‘Geliebter’, ‘glänzt’ whispered almost as Schwarzkopf were reborn – and the longer line, with all its increasing dramatic urgency, this seemed to me a model performance. Mir ward gesagt, du reisest in die Ferne, first of the Paul Heyse settings, sounded as continuation and foil in equal measure. The spirit of Chopin’s mazurka pervaded Mein Liebster singt am Haus im Mondenscheine, whilst performative wit, especially to the ending, brought smiles, inward and outward, in Mein Liebster ist so klein. Moving from Italy to Spain, Sagt, seid Ihr es, feiner Herr, sounded imbued with the spirit of the dance. Again, a knowing smile, visible and audible, characterised the final ‘Ach nein!’

Xavier Montsalvatge’s Cinco canciones negras proved a revelation to me: expressing the voice, it seemed, of a Catalan Poulenc. The habañera rhythm of the opening ‘Cuba dentro de un piano’ offers scope, fully realised, for rhythmic play with word endings. Karg and Martineau seemed equally in their element. Rhythmic flexibility and intriguingly ‘different’ harmonies were the order of the day in the ensuing ‘Rhythmus der Habañera’. Karg’s delicious pianissimo singing was the abiding memory of ‘Canción de cuna para dormer a un negrito’. The set reached a wonderfully lively conclusion in ‘Canto Negro’.

Duparc’s L’Invitation au voyage initiated a series of French songs in the second half, the performance striking just the right note of invitingly French post-Wagnerism. The varying moods of Ravel’s Cinq mélodies populaires grecques were unfailingly captured, verbal detail impressively present yet unexaggerated. Piano rhythms were flexible where required, insistent where necessary. Reynaldo Hahn, I am afraid, is a composer to whom I am yet to respond; the three Études latines we heard seemed very well performed, but as music, I found them little more than pleasant. Charles Koechlin offered something far more interesting. Chanson d’Engaddi emerged very much with a personal ‘voice’, its spare quality leading one in, especially with such varied vocal colourings, to the Schoenbergian harmonies of La Chanson d’Ishak de Mossoul.

Poulenc is so often at his finest in song, and so he proved again here. Voyage à Paris plunged us immediately into a world of unmistakeably Parisian urbanity, Montparnasse offering a sad foil of solitude, hinting at the world of La Voix humaine: those harmonies, that tristesseHyde Park again made me smile: surely the point, whilst the passing time – a Parisian Marschallin, perhaps – of Hôtel cast its own melancholy spell. The programme concluded with two songs by Samuel Barber. Karg’s vocal shading and her understated sadness had Solitary Hotel linger in the memory for some time.

Mark Berry


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