Gounod: Où voulez-vous aller?; Le Soir; O ma belle rebelle; Sérénade; Mignon; Viens, les gazons sont verts
Edmond de Polignac: Lamento
Massenet: Chant provençal; Elégie; Nuit d’Espagne
Duparc: Chanson triste; La Vie antérieure; Extase; Lamento
Reynaldo Hahn: Le Rossignol des lilas; Mai; Les Cygnes; Infidélité; Rêverie
Offenbach: Six Fables de La Fontaine: ‘La Cigale et la fourmi’, ‘Le Corbeau et le renard’
Véronique Gens (soprano)
Susan Manoff (piano)
It came as quite a surprise throughout much of the first half of this recital of French song, that it was the piano-playing of Susan Manoff that made the greater impression upon me than the singing of Véronique Gens. With the best will in the world, it could hardly be claimed that the songs of Gounod and Massenet are possessed of remarkably piano parts. And yet, from the prelude to the opening Où voulez-vous aller, it was often the piano that proved more communicative, that grabbed and retained my interest. Indeed, Manoff’s evident love for the music and for music-making in general proved so infections that I found more in the songs, especially Gounod’s, than I might ever have imagined possible. Whether it were her teasing, effortlessly ‘natural’ rubato in the Lamartine setting, Le Soir, the immediate establishment of a cradle rhythm, and her play therewith, in the Hugo Sérénade, or the unerring sense of line and shaping the song as a whole in Mignon, (sort of) after Goethe, it would have been more or less impossible not to warm to these performance. I certainly did not try. Likewise in the rhythms of Massenet’s Nuit d’Espagne. ‘Generative’ might be thought too Teutonic a way of considering the music in a song like that; it was nevertheless the word that came to mind to this incorrigible Teutonophile.
Gens sometimes sounded reticent by comparison, rather as if she were holding something back for the second half. Perhaps she was. Not that there was nothing to admire. Above all, there was her ready way with the texts and her cleanness of line. A touch more vibrato might on occasion, though, have been welcome – at least to me. The tasteful sadness of Massenet’s Elégie prove eminently satisfying, though. In Edmond de Polignac’s Lamento, simple and well-formed, far more than a mere curiosity, both artists left one wanting more. The piano’s harmonic inflections nevertheless proved the key, or so it seemed.
If I found Gens at times a little ‘white’ of voice in Duparc’s songs – Vie antérieure in particular – that is more a matter of taste than anything else. It remained, however, the piano parts in which I found, again to my surprise, the greater interest, at least until the Théophile Gautier setting, Lamento. Contemplation of the white tomb, as opposed to entombment itself, was very much the thing – until the high drama (relatively speaking) of the third and final stanza. ‘Ah! jamais plus près de la tombe je n’irai…’
Try as I might, I cannot summon up the enthusiasm shared by so many for the songs of Reynaldo Hahn, whether in the second half proper, or as encores. Nevertheless, I found myself well able to appreciate the darker undercurrents of a song such as Mai in performance. Likewise that ineffably Gallic regret – a cliché, I know, but what of it? – in Infidélité, another Gautier setting. Moreover, the way Manoff set up musical expectations through rhythm in the Hugo Rêverie reminded me very much of the opening Gounod set.
Offenbach’s cynical humour is probably just more appealing to me. I do not think I had ever heard his songs before. The two pieces from his Six Fables de La Fontaine, pretty much operettic scenas in their own right, made me keen to hear more. Gens now seemed far more at ease, more readily communicative. ‘She played humorously with the closing phrase of ‘Le Corbeau et le renard’ – ‘qu’on ne l’y prendrait plus’ – with no need to underline. The preceding ‘La Cigale et la fourmi’ closed with a true invitation to the dance. This was by now a true partnership, whether between soprano and pianist or grasshopper and ant.