French soprano Sandrine Piau’s evening of all-French song at the Wigmore Hall, selections from Debussy, Chausson, Faur, Ravel and Koechlin, could have benefited from more variety.
Hearing French melodies sung by a native-speaker gives unalloyed pleasure, especially when that singer is such an eloquent interpreter as Piau, but a whole recital of them is definitely an acquired taste.
The Wigmore Hall’s exploration of French song continues apace, and having ecstatically welcomed Susan Graham’s all-French programme earlier in the season I had high hopes for this from one of France’s most highly regarded sopranos.
Sandrine Piau has carved a niche for herself in the world of Baroque music indeed her recording Opera Seria of Handel arias is essential listening, providing some of the most stylish Handel singing committed to disc. But the world of French song and mlodies demands a very different approach, and whilst I have nothing but admiration for Piau’s technique and her way with the French language, in which she is peerless, I was left unmoved by the end of the evening. This was ultimately frustrating as here is a soprano at the peak of her very considerable powers, yet somehow I failed to be drawn in.
The recital got off to a promising start with five melodies by Ernest Chausson. Piau sang the first of these, Hb, with rapt intensity, and followed this with some gloriously produced top notes at the climax to Le charme. She floated some exquisite pianissimo high notes in the conclusion to Srnade which was the stuff of dreams.
Similarly she never put a foot wrong in a selection of mlodies by Faur with Sylvie being the most telling as her anxious cries of ‘Si tu veux savoir Sylvie’ arched over the cascading piano roulades, deftly handled by accompanist Susan Manoff. Likewise Aprs un rve was delivered with style and assurance and the line ‘Hlas! hlas, triste rveil des songes’ was a cry from the heart. There was melancholy aplenty in the selection of Debussy mlodies which concluded the first half. Again Piau was particularly effective when it came to hushed introspection but almost seemed embarrassed to fully let go when it was called for.
After the interval we were treated to Ravel’s Cinq mlodies populaires grecques and whilst Ravel’s more pugnacious style came as a welcome relief, songs such as Quel gallant m’est comparable needed to be more coquettish. Charles Koechlin’s Sept chansons pour Gladys proved to be the novelty of the evening, but like much of what had gone before really failed to set the hall alight. And maybe that’s the problem: French mlodies simply don’t have the substance or emotional pull that German lieder do, and that’s why there was a lack of involvement on the part of this particular listener.