Bizet, Chanson d’avril
Chabrier, Les cigales
Bachelet, Chère nuit
Duparc, Au pays où se fait la guerre
Ravel, Histoire naturelles – Le paon
Caplet, Le corbeau et le renard
Roussel, Réponse d’une épouse sage
Debussy, Fêtes galantes – Colloque sentimental
Honegger, Trois chansons de la petite sirène
Rosenthal, Chansons du monsieur Bleu – La souris d’Angleterre
Poulenc, La dame de Monte-Carlo
Susan Graham mezzo-soprano
Malcolm Martineau piano
Matinee musicale. On a sunny day off Sloane Square, it was a perfect idea to skip lunch and listen instead to an hour of French songs. The singer was Susan Graham, the acclaimed Texas-born mezzo who has made a speciality of this repertoire, like Frederica von Stade before her. Ever since the Twenties, when young expatriates travelled to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger, there’s been a preference in New York and Boston, now rather slim, for chansons over lieder. Graham has made a recording of songs by Ned Rorem, who duplicates the ephemeral delicacy and finely etched sophistication found in Ravel, Poulenc, and Debussy. The virtues of the French art song are either delectable or debatable, depending on your orientation. Paris or Vienna? I lean so far to the latter that I hesitated about going to hear Graham’s recital, but I knew her singing would be very accomplished, so I took my seat in the front row at Cadogan Hall.
Her frequent preference, both in programs and on CDs, is for a tasting menu that offers one song per composer. In this case we began with a skipping spring ditty by Bizet from 1856, Chanson d’avril, and proceeded to Poulenc roughly a century later. “Ditty” isn’t a frequently encountered word for describing German lieder, but the French insist on lightness of touch. This holds true even for a heroic composer like Berlioz, whose forty or so mélodies tend to fall into the ditty category. There can be much art in simplicity, of course, and if the song comes from the right parfumerie—the ones labelled Duparc, Hahn, and Fauré, for example—a fragile art form lingers in the air much longer than you’d expect. (As an encore, Graham sang Hahn’s sinuous, melancholy À Chloris, an air deliberately fashioned in the Baroque style of Rameau and a reminder of the composer’s special gifts. Buying her CD devoted to Hahn would be a fine way to get to know both singer and composer.) Malcolm Martineau, whom I rate as the best accompanist around, offered finely idiomatic background—which points to a limitation of the chanson. The piano part rarely claims equal status with the singer, so other than creating an atmosphere and offering a few side comments, the tinkly accompaniments tend to run together after you’ve heard six or seven in a row. When the composer happens to be strong in writing for the piano, as Debussy and Ravel are, the story changes.
My personal favorite in this recital was the melodramatic, troubling Au pays où se fait la guerre (In the country where war is being waged), in which a young girl longs for a soldier to meet her at night, only to find that he hasn’t appeared when the sun rises. It’s not of the stature of Mahler’s great “Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen,” but Duparc’s lament is very touching. At the opposite extreme, I was charmed by Manuel Rosenthal’s music-hall turn in a song about an English mouse who travels to Calais to live it up on bacon and gin. Annoyed, the French set a trap baited with brie and gruyere, at which the English mouse turns up his nose. Lamentably, he can’t resist a nibble of Cheshire cheese, and the song ends with a sharp ping on the piano as the trap snaps shut.
Finally, I have a few quizzical remarks to make about Graham’s singing, which receives unstinting praise. She relies too much on her strong voice, which has dynamic reach and carry. Most of these songs turned into full-throated quasi-arias; only a few times did she pare down her tone to articulate the French texts as precisely as they demand. She almost never attempts the characteristic nasal head tone of native French singers. I have felt, on the few times I’ve heard her in concert, that Graham is an aloof singer, which makes her gravitation toward French songs, the most intimate area of classical singing, rather odd. She goes to a deal of trouble to act out each song, but her nature isn’t to be vulnerable, touching, unaffected, or warmly charming. If I close my eyes, I don’t hear a French singer but a dedicated musician employing French songs as her vehicle. The voice itself is lustrous but generic—you don’t immediately go “That’s Susan Graham,” as you do with Callas, Tebaldi, Leontyne Price, and many others. Years ago I was riding a bus home from a concert making similar critical remarks, and the passenger in front of me turned around to irritably complain, “Then why the hell did you go in the first place?” Because enjoyment doesn’t require perfection, that’s why.