Not only does Susan Graham possess one of the finest mezzo-soprano voices around, but she has few peers when it comes to this repertoire.
She presented to a packed Wigmore Hall a heady-mix of mlodies sourced from an eclectic range of French composers.
It’s not hard to see why she is so fted in this repertoire, as each song was a complete gem.
Given as part of the Wigmore’s French Season, the American mezzo-soprano hand-picked just under thirty songs, making this recital one of the most generous of late. The songs were judiciously grouped, so that each section was in itself a mini-recital and exploration of the mlodie. Within the first group, all wonderfully vocalized, Cesar Franck’s Nocturne stood out for the limpid tranquility that Graham produced on a thread of tone that enraptured the hall. Saint-Sans’ Danse macabre concluded the section and here Graham gave the popular mlodie uncommon clarity, depth of emotion and an operatic-like splendour.
In the following section she began with a spirited rendition of Chabrier’s wonderfully evocative Les Cigales, but for me the mlodies which made the strongest impression were Paladilhe’s haunting Psych, Debussy’s Harmonie du soir, which Graham concluded with the most persuasive pianissimo, and Bachelet’s Chre nuit. Bachelet is only remembered these days for this song but with its rhapsodic nocturnal harmonies, coruscating piano colouring and extravagantly expressive quality of vocal line it was a gift to Graham’s multi-faceted powers of interpretation. She gave it her all and the outpouring of tone on the climatic line Ah! Lve-toi! Ah! Lve-toi’ pinned you to the back of your seat – it was pure ecstasy!
After the interval we were treated to deliciously comic renditions of Ravel’s Le paon (The Peacock) and Caplet’s Le corbeau et le renard (The Crow and the Fox). Here Graham displayed her natural ebullient stage presence, which was then reined in for the introspection of Messiaen’s La fiance perdue (The Lost Fiance). I find Messiaen’s Catholicism in every breath too hard to swallow and what starts as a restrained paean to lost-love turns into an appeal to Jesus. Oh please!
From Jesus to the Mad Hatter, as in the concluding group Graham gave a spirited performance of Erik Satie’s absurdist Le Chapelier (The Hatter) and Rosenthal’s Le souris d’Angleterre (The English Mouse). She concluded the recital with Poulenc’s La Dame de Monte Carlo, which is really hard to classify. It’s almost operatic and is about as far from being a mlodie as you can get – best described as a tuneful (and shorter) Erwartung, it traces the final hours of a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. It was a daring work to choose to end what had been a pretty exhausting programme, both for her and her exemplary accompanist Malcolm Martineau, as it makes vast demands on the singer and pianist, but Graham had stamina in reserve and it proved a worthy climax to such a momentous and educational journey through French song.
The American mezzo impishly chose Noel Coward’s There’s always something fishy about the French as her final encore and it brought forth ecstatic applause from the capacity audience. And the good news is that you can catch this glorious recital on Radio 3 on Thursday 21 February.