Joyce DiDonato and the Brentano String Quartet Remember Camille Claudel

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Strauss, Lekeu, Debussy and Heggie, Joyce DiDonato (mezzo-soprano) with the Brentano String Quartet: Wigmore Hall, London, 18.11.2017. (JPr)

Joyce DiDonato (c) Simon Pauly

R. Strauss – ‘All’ mein Gedanken’ Op.21; ‘Du meines Herzens Krönelein’ Op.21; ‘Die Nacht’ Op.10 No.3; ‘Ach Lieb, ich muss nun scheiden’ Op.21; ‘Traum durch die Dämmerung’ Op.29 No.1;

Guillaume LekeuMolto adagio sempre cantante doloroso

DebussyChansons de Bilitis (arr. Jake Heggie b.1961)

Jake HeggieCamille Claudel: Into the Fire

Having warmed up her voice up with her recent performances as Semiramide at Covent Garden (review click here), this was a delightful recital from the celebrated mezzo Joyce DiDonato, accompanied by the excellent Brentano Spring Quartet with whom she frequently performs. The programme was carefully chosen to focus on a couple of the great strengths of her singing; her consummate handling of long-breathed lines and her exquisite pianissimo singing.

DiDonato judged the acoustics of the intimate Wigmore Hall absolutely perfectly so every word reached even the very back where I was. She sang in German, French and English and – although I am only (reasonably) fluent in the latter! – if I was a native speaker I would have understood every word, and – most importantly – their meaning. Despite glancing from time to time at the music in front of her – unlike some Lieder singers – DiDonato displayed her famed gifts for communication in all she sang in this recital. Possibly because of the demands of the Rossini opera she has been involved with, or maybe due to the development of her voice at this stage of her career, DiDonato sounds more soprano than mezzo. Yet the range remains remarkable, and when she needed a chest voice there was the darker and more resonant sound that some of the songs clearly required.

DiDonato began with an eclectic group of five Richard Strauss Lieder. I am not certain whose arrangements for string quartet these were, but the understated and sympathetic accompaniment – here and elsewhere during the recital – by the Brentano Quartet was ideal, and they showcased DiDonato’s voice splendidly. The four virtuosi – Michael Steinberg and Serena Canin (violins), Misha Amory (viola) and Nina Maria Lee (cello) – all had their moment to shine, whilst proving themselves to be an irreproachable and well-balanced ensemble. Never more so than in Lekeu’s serenely meditative Molto adagio sempre cantante doloroso written when the composer was only 17.

In her set of five Strauss songs Joyce DiDonato fully embraced the love, longing and regret she was singing about. We heard the more plaintive and reflective ‘All’ mein Gedanken’, ‘Die Nacht’ and ‘Ach Lieb, ich muss nun scheiden’, side by side with the more impassioned ‘Du meines Herzens Krönelein’ and ‘Traum durch die Dämmerung’. The latter song provided one of a number of sublime moments in this recital, because when ‘der schönsten Frau’ was sung about DiDonato brought ‘the loveliest woman’ to life with her words.

Debussy’s Chansons de Bilitis (‘La flûte de Pan’, ‘La chevelure’ and ‘Le tombeau des Naïades’) were inspired by Pierre Louÿs’s 1894 collection of erotic poetry of the same name. Louÿs originally claimed these were translations from Ancient Greek texts, when, in fact, they were written by the author himself. DiDonato’s interpretations were captivating and she captured the mood of each of the songs in her inimitable fashion. She was particularly convincing in the scarcely veiled eroticism of ‘La chevelure’ which ended with a delicately tremulous ‘frisson’ (shiver). In the third song she expressed the bleakness and dread of ‘Le tombeau des Naïades’ for all to hear. The spare and wistful arrangements for string quartet were by Jake Heggie and among the highlights was the sound of ‘the song of the green frogs’ at the appropriate point in ‘La flûte de Pan’.

After the interval we heard the song cycle Camille Claudel: Into the Fire which was composed by Jake Heggie for Joyce DiDonato in 2012. This composer is a rising name in the United States, where a number of his operas have been successfully performed. The specially written texts are by Gene Sheer – a frequent collaborator with Heggie – and are inspired by the biography of the sculptor Camille Claudel (1864-1943). She was Rodin’s student and lover and became a critically acclaimed artist in her own right. Later however, she began to show signs of mental distress and her family had her committed – possibly unnecessarily – to an institution: there she spent the remaining 30 years of her life. Each vignette has the name of a sculpture which the artist seems to address, except the last one in which she thanks her colleague and friend Jessie Lipscomb for coming to visit her in the psychiatric hospital. DiDonato’s embodiment of Camille Claudel’s personal turmoil was riveting and her dramatic gifts came fully to the fore. Heggie’s tonal music looks to the past with hints of melodies from the Belle Époque; moreover the composer seems to have been further inspired by Debussy – who was a friend of the sculptor – with reminiscences of Chansons de Bilitis, especially in the first songs.

Hints of madness already seem apparent in ‘La Valse’ as Claudel’s questions climax with ‘Where do I abide?’. ‘Shakuntala’ is a cry of erotic longing and ends with the first intimations of Claudel’s decline at ‘But who I was has died!’. There is a sense that the rest is almost a manifestation of an out-of-body (mind?) experience. DiDonato imbues ‘La petite châtelaine’ – about a child Claudel aborted – with a heightened sense of detachment. There is palpable agitation from soloist and the string quartet during ‘The Gossips’ as Claudel wonders if Rodin is returning. After an instrumental interlude marking the passing of time, there is the epilogue, and her old friend, who we hear in the strings, visits the all-but-forgotten Claudel. Amongst the conversational banalities there is Claudel’s paranoia that she is being poisoned: finally, DiDonato’s voice gently fades into bleak, heart-wrenching, despair with her last utterance ‘Thank you for remembering me’. Thanks to Jake Heggie and Joyce DiDonato, Camille Claudel cannot be forgotten again!

There was time for just one encore to usher in the holiday season and the New Year. Joyce DiDonato reminded her Wigmore Hall audience that whatever happens ‘There is always tomorrow’ and how nobody ever said this better than Richard Strauss. His famous song, ‘Morgen!’, closed the recital and DiDonato and the Brentano String Quartet suffused the singing and playing with a poignant beauty.

Jim Pritchard

This concert was repeated on 21st December and for more about what is on at the Wigmore Hall click here.

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