Purcell – The Blessed Virgin’s Expostulation, Z 196
Berlioz – La mort d’Ophélie, op.18 no.11
Schubert – Heiß mich nicht reden, D 877/2
Schumann – So laßt mich scheinen, op.98a/9
Liszt – Mignons Lied, S 275
Tchaikovsky – None but the lonely heart, op.6 no.6
Duparc – Romance de Mignon
Wolf – Kennst du das Land
Joseph Horovitz – Lady Macbeth: A Scena
Poulenc – Fiançailles pour rire, op.101
Messager – L’Amour masqué: ‘J’ai deux amants’
Cole Porter – The Physician
Vernon Duke (arr. Roger Vignoles) – Ages Ago
Ben Moore – Sexy Lady
I recall vividly the first time I saw – and heard – Susan Graham. It was as Cherubino at the Salzburg Festival in 1996, my first visit to the festival and my first opera there. (I have from the time beaten myself up that I opted for Figaro rather than a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hear Boulez conduct Moses und Aron, but anyway…) Graham stole the show, and I cannot remember a single occasion on which I have heard her since when she has disappointed. This Wigmore Hall recital, surveying various types of women and their troubles, presented no exception, even though, were one to be truly Beckmesser-ish, there were a couple of songs at least that played less obviously to her strengths.
Purcell’s The Blessed Virgin’s Expostulation was a bold choice with which to open. Graham’s intensely dramatic, even operatic reading had no sense whatsoever of the warm-up, which was as well, given the difficulty of the coloratura the singer must despatch. But the words were relished equally, likewise their sound. Whether one thought the performance too ‘operatic’ would in good degree be a matter of personal taste, but Malcolm Martineau’s relative reticence made for a slightly unsatisfactory contrast; keyboard players such as Britten and Raymond Leppard have brought greater drama to Purcell. There was no such problem with Berlioz’s La mort d’Ophélie, and the slight beat in Graham’s voice – almost as if this were the warm-up – soon vanished. Both Graham and Martineau exhibited exemplary style; indeed, the piano part sounded especially limpid. Graham’s dramatic instincy was shown to good effect, without being overplayed, at the breaking of the bough and Ophelia’s consequent fall, ‘sa guirlande à la main’. And the delicate floating of the final ‘Ah’ was as noteworthy for its subtle inflections as, almost paradoxically, its unbroken line.
Goethe followed, with different ‘Mignon’ treatments. In Schubert’s Heiß mich nicht reden, Graham’s diction was most impressive, with clear communication of verbal meaning, though here and in Schumann’s So laßt mich scheinen, I felt – perhaps I am carping here – a certain lack of Innigkeit. I doubt that I should have wanted to hear an entire recital of German Romantic Lieder from her, but in the programming context, these two songs remained most welcome. Martineau’s unexaggerated impetuosity in the postlude to the Schumann song struck just the right note. Graham’s communicative skills were put to excellent use in Liszt’s setting of Kennst du das Land. Both musicians heightened the senses both of kinship to Wagner – though the Wagner we are talking about of course comes later – and of echt-Lisztian melodic bloom. Liszt’s truly ravishing harmonies were beautifully voiced by Martineau. Perhaps this came across more as a heartfelt aria than a Lied, but it was not necessarily the worse for that. Likewise the tendency towards opera heightened the drama of Tchaikovsky’s Nyet, tolko tot, kto znal. Duparc’s Romance de Mignon sounded not lit from behind, as in Debussy’s celebrate phrase concerning Parsifal, but illuminated from within: again, just the ticket. And Wolf’s Kennst du das Land opened with a greater sense of inwardness than had been apparent in the Schubert and Schumann songs. The Straussian glow Graham imparted to her line could not have been more welcome, though Martineau’s tone hardened at climaxes.
Having exchanged virginal white for vampish black during the interval, Graham gave us first Joseph Horovitz’s 1970 Lady Macbeth – A Scena. Skilfully written in its highly pictorial way, it remained derivative and obvious, even in such fine interpretative hands. It would have been as welcome to hear Graham simply recite Shakespeare’s text. Poulenc’s Fiançailles pour rire exhibited on both artists’ part an excellent refusal to sentimentalise. ‘Dans l’herbe’ provided a textbook case of using harmonies and their progression to dramatic ends, though shaping of melodic lines was just as impressive. The closing ‘Fleur’ was less light in tone, quite rightly, without a hint of the maudlin. Messager’s ‘J’ai deux amants’ from L’amour masqué (1923) was a gift to Graham’s communicative skills in French and to her stage talent. Cole Porter’s The Physician and Vernon Duke’s Ages Ago were skilfully, winningly despatched, though I could not help but wish that we had been treated to something a little more substantial. Ben Moore’s Sexy Lady was written for Graham and wittily tells of the mezzo’s plight: all those trouser roles, latter-day competition from counter-tenors as well. It was an apt way to close the recital, though a couple of encores were to come, and took me back to that first encounter with Graham as Cherubino.