Variations on a … Song Cycle by Robert Schumann

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Schumann, Grieg, Richard Strauss, Dankworth, Fauré, Rangström, Mahler, Turina, Ravel, Duparc, Debussy, Tchaikovsky, Poulenc, Berlioz, Granados, Quitter – Susan Graham (mezzo-soprano) and Malcolm Martineau (piano): Geneva, 20.3.2016. (ALL)

Susan_Graham_Credit_B_Ealovega Smaller
Susan Graham (c) B. Ealovega

Life and Song Cycles do go fast.

To slow time and allow us to appreciate and savor key events before they vanish, Susan Graham developed a fascinating program which consisted of adding to each of Schumann’s beloved “Frauliebe und -Leben” songs on similar themes.

This was smart and made us realize that maybe Shakespeare’s “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” was not necessarily, as I always thought, been written by a man about a woman but maybe by a woman about a man. It made us smile at having Mahler’s Rheinlegendchen close to Schumann’s “Ring an meinem Finger”. Ravel’s “Tout gai” gave us exuberant Mediterranean joy to the more inward looking “Helft mir, ihr Schwestern” while of all lullabies composers selected, I would hold Tchaikovsky as an efficient baby-sitter. Of the dark evocations of Death, Granados’s one had gravitas and drama.

One could not have felt that this was Susan Graham’s first appearance in Geneva. At the start of the evening, the American mezzo addressed the audience to comment the program in a relaxed and joyful mood as if in between old friends. She explained the concept of the program and made us smile when evoking the challenge of singing in no less than eight different languages.

She should not have worried. Her artistry is of the highest order. Words were clear in at least all languages I could understand. While not being a natural soprano, she managed the high notes at ease but impressed at the colors through her vocal range. Her phrasing is subtle and particularly in the two Fauré songs where her ability to take several lines in one breath gave a special depth to the music.

Some of the Schumann perhaps were low-key. I was surprised she took a breath in the middle of the last lines of the “Er, der herrlichste von Allen” thus breaking the harmonic line. She also had a tendency to add some mimic to some of the songs. It was not needed to show too often her rings and to whisper a little too audibly as if overwhelmed by emotion. The characterization of the pieces were enough. This was a case when one should just trust the composer.

But she was brooding in the Spanish songs, grandiose in the Nordic ones, she found a Broadway like charm in the American ones and her mastery of the French style should be studied in the “conservatoires”. At the keyboard, Malcolm Martineau provided skilled and careful accompaniment. Only in a few places was his lightness of touch too light and one could have wished for a heavier left hand.

Susan Graham gave two encores: a delightful one by Renaldo Hahn full of Gallic elegance and “Hello, Young Lovers” from Rogers and Hammerstein “The King and I”, elegant and bittersweet in some ways like the Schumann and with a pianissimo last note to die for.

Yes, Susan Graham started as a newcomer in Geneva but at the evening, she had made many many friends.

Antoine Lévy-Leboyer

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