The Enchanting Voice of Christiane Karg at the Proms


United KingdomUnited Kingdom PCM 6, 2017 BBC Proms at Cadogan Hall – Duparc, Guridi, Ravel, Koechlin, Poulenc: Christiane Karg (soprano); Malcolm Martineau (piano). Cadogan Hall, London,  21.8.2017. (CC)

Christiane Karg © Gisela Schenker

Duparc L’Invitation au voyage
GuridiSeis Conciones castellanas
Ravel – Cinq Mélodies populaires greques
Hahn Études latines; Lydé, Vile potabis; Tyndaris
Koechlin – Shéhérazade (selection): Chanson d’Engaddi, Op.56/1; La Chanson d’Ishak de Moussoul, Op.84/8; Le Voyage, Op.84/7
Poulenc BanalitésVoyage à Paris, Hôtel; Deux Poèmes de Guillaume Apollinaire

Bavarian-born Christiane Karg has delighted many times over the years, be it at the Wigmore Hall in recital or at the Barbican in Handel (Ginevra in Ariodante). She has a rich soprano that is an incredibly expressive instrument in itself, as she clearly showed in Duparc’s L’Invitation au voyage. One of Duparc’s earliest Baudelaire settings, it begins with the piano creating a miraculous web of sound – or so it emerged here, as Martineau is a well-established painter in sound via the piano. When that opening returns for the second “long” stanza, it returns transfigured, even more intimate. Only in retrospect did one feel, perhaps, that Karg was not fully warmed in at the outset; the magic of the end was beautiful.

We moved straight into Jesús Guridi’s Seis Conciones castellanas (Six Castillian Songs), Martineau not countenancing applause between these items. A heinous crime, I know, but Guridi (Jesús Guridi Bidaola, to give him his full name) is a recent discovery for me. Three of these Conciones castellanas turn up on a disc entitled Así Canta Castilla on the EMEC label (catalogue number 126), part of a transfixing recital that also includes songs by Manzano, Gombau, Halffter, Lavilla, José and Arabaolaza. The actual date of this set varies between 1939 and 1941 depending on which source one consults. It was wonderful to hear the full set of six. The ornate vocal line of the first, ‘Allá arriba en aquella montaña’ (Up there on the mountain) was balanced by the winding piano opening of ‘Sereno!’ (Watchman) – it was in this latter that Martineau really stepped up to the plate for the tricky climax. It was interesting, too, to watch Karg on the concert platform, “resetting” herself between songs. One could almost see her morph from one character to the other, here from Watchman to the description of the bullfighter in ‘Llámale con el pañuelo’ (Call him with our kerchief).

Perhaps the fourth song, ‘No quiero tus avellanas’ (I don’t want your hazelnuts), is the highlight. The title may suggest a light-hearted number, but the truth is that this is magnificently interior music, as well as brilliantly inventive. The way Guridi thins the texture is heart-stopping; the close hung in the air, beautifully. The penultimate song, ‘Cómo quieres que adivine!’ (How do you expect me to guess!) held moments of great gentleness, before the reflective ‘Mañanita de San Juan’ (Early on St John’s Day) rounded off the set. A real treat.

Ravel’s Cinq Mélodies populaires grecques, more familiar fare, were nevertheless receiving their first performance at the Proms. Karg moves so naturally between languages, but it has to be said she sounds so perfectly at home in French. She floated the line of the second song, ‘Là-bas, vers l’église’ magically; not to be outdone, Martineau’s way with the folksy piano lines of the third song, “Quel galant m’est comparable?” (What gallant can compare with me?) carried their own impeccable French fragrance. Maybe it was Karg’s emphasis on the word “ange” (angel) in the fourth song that really pointed to her attunement to this music.

Caracas-born Reynaldo Hahn, known for his contribution to Belle Époque Paris, here contributed Nos. 5-7 of his Études latines, settings of translations of Horace. The ongoing tread of chords that form the accompaniment to the long, expressive line of ‘Lydé’ introduced the sheer beauty of Hahn’s utterance; Martineau’s pianississimo opening to ‘Vile potabis’ took us to another plane before the beautifully following ‘Tyndaris’ rounded off this most fragrant of set of excerpts. That fragrance was effectively prolonged in ‘Chanson d’Engaddi’ by Charles Koechlin. Delicate as a rose, that song includes a delicious moment in which the singer splits a word into an aspirated descent immediately echoed by piano (on the word “grise”). The daringly static ‘La Chanson d’Ishak de Mossoul’ moved to the final offering, ‘Le Voyage’, wherein Karg’s seamless ascent to the higher registers was a thing of wonder.

The intense happiness of Poulenc’s ‘Voyage à Paris’ (from Banalités) was separated from its companion piece from that set by the gorgeous Poèmes de Guillaume Apollinaire. Martineau’s gently swinging accompaniment to the first of these Poèmes, the hypnotic ‘Montparnasse’ enabled maximum contrast to the light ‘Hyde Park’. The final excerpt from Banalités, ‘Hôtel’, was a lazy, hazy way to close the recital.

Or, almost to close. The only piece for which Karg used music was her encore, Ravel’s ‘Kaddish’, from the Deux Mélodies hébraïques which she referred to as bringing “one other colour” to the recital: a Jewish prayer, in Hebrew. Karg spoke of her amazement at Ravel’s “curiosity” for “foreign sounds and for other cultures” (not a comment on Brexit, surely?): we should, she said, “all be curious, to go into life, and to discover something new.” Don’t be insular, in other words. Quite right, too, and what a way to get her point home. The way Karg coloured the first phrase by varying her tone was delicious. The purity of Karg’s voice at the first use of the word “Amen” was stunning; the impassioned nature of that word’s last appearance, right at the close, perhaps even more so. A superbly effective encore.

Colin Clarke

For more about the BBC Proms click here.

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