There was something slightly amiss about this recital of French mélodie by baritone Christopher Maltman and soprano Lucy Crowe, with Graham Johnson on piano. Although this latest concert in the Wigmore Hall’s French series, Le Plus Doux Chemin, was expertly programmed and included some exquisite songs, the soloists’ hearts weren’t always in it.
Maltman in particular never really got going. He is no stranger to the French repertoire, and scored a hit as Ramiro in the Royal Opera House’s L’Heure Espagnol in 2007. Yet his opening song, Gounod’s Tombez mes ailes was marked by a weak, even sluggish, entry. Even the charmingly comic La Coccinelle (The Ladybird) by Bizet failed to excite his sense of humour or drama. Maltman’s insecure diction (so important in these quasi-operatic gems of French musicality) didn’t help either. Neither did his overall tone, which sounded a touch bland, even bored, and lacked the suppleness needed to do these songs full justice.
Other mélodie were better served by Lucy Crowe. Unlike Maltman, this is not Crowe’s standard repertoire, but her bright, flexible voice was well-suited to its demands. The compositions of Fauré and Saint-Saëns were particularly well sung, and Crowe demonstrated a flair for the exotic Romanticism of Berlioz’s celebrated Zaïde, with its rhythmic vitality and moments of ‘Spanish’ colour.
Neither Maltman nor Crowe could have brought these beautiful works of salon art alive without Graham Johnson. It was he who put together the programme – which included some delightful pieces by long-forgetten composers like Lucien Hillemacher, Théodore Dubois and Xavier Leroux; and it was he who demonstrated the deepest understanding of, and sensitivity for, all the mélodie. In some, the piano part was simply accompaniment. But in others, such as Debussy’s Apparition and Nuit d’étoiles, the complex yet subtle writing called for the sort of skill and sensitivity that Johnson has demonstrated for more than three decades.
Further details of Wigmore Hall concerts can be found at wigmore-hall.org.uk