French-Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux has been doing the rounds of concert halls and opera houses for well over a decade now, yet she has only recently begun to emerge as a soloist in her own right. This recital gave an insight into the particular qualities of her voice in a programme of French melodiés from the belle époque.
Her contralto is light and agile, with a range that extends comfortably into the upper reaches of the register. Her well-chosen programme began with Fauré’s Cinq melodies ‘de Venise’, completed in 1891. Like so many melodiés of the period, these are settings of poems by Verlaine. In ‘Mandoline’, Lemieux flickered delicately through the score (singing from memory), before darkening the mood with her warm lower register in ‘Green’. Verlaine himself apparently didn’t think much of Fauré’s settings of his verse. He much preferred those of Reynaldo Hahn, and it was interesting to compare Hahn’s versions of these two songs (respectively re-titled ‘Fêtes galantes’ and ‘Offrande’). Lemieux slightly over-did the frivolous fruitiness of ‘Fêtes galantes’ but painted a masterly picture of languid desire in ‘Offrande’. Touching interpretations, too, of three songs by the brilliant but short-lived Guillaume Lekeu, and of Hahn’s ‘D’une prison’ – a spare and anguished expression of Verlaine’s feelings during his imprisonment for shooting Rimbaud in Brussels in 1873.
In the second part of the concert, Lemieux focused on delineating the distinct styles of Koechlin, Debussy and Duparc. The melancholic pastiche of Koechlin’s ‘Minuet’ contrasted markedly with the similarly imitative ‘Mandoline’ of his teacher Fauré, while the impressionistic monody of ‘L’hiver’ (1891-5) recalled the subdued colours of Monet’s winter paintings. Debussy set more texts by Verlaine than by any other poet, and his three 1904 songs from Fêtes galantes are especially intense, coming as they did at the time of the break-up of his first marriage to ‘Lily’ Texier. Lemieux hinted at troubled undercurrents in the outwardly carefree ‘Les ingénus’, while injecting ‘Colloque sentimentale’ with tangible regret and bitterness. She was completely in command of the final set of Duparc songs, including the celebrated ‘L’invitation au voyage’, which was particularly pleasing to hear sung in perfect, natural French.
Of course Lemieux wasn’t alone in communicating the music so well. Roger Vignoles is a seasoned accompanist but also a highly regarded interpreter of the French repertoire. His handling of the often complex piano parts was deeply reflective and personal, but never at the risk of overshadowing or tying down Lemieux’ voice.
Further details of Wigmore Hall concerts can be found at wigmore-hall.org.uk.