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8.11.04

La Mission est Accomplie

The second Bösendorfer in a Washington sea of New York Steinways is hiding in the Maison Française (the other one standing in the Austrian Embassy). That's where Mikhail Hallak accompanied France's premiere baritone, François Le Roux last Wednesday (November 3) in a delicious program of melodies. It was the first concert in a new series of four concerts presented by the Maison in conjunction with "Theater of Voices," the young Mr. Hallak's brainchild, devoted to preserving the art of the recital.

The softly rolling "Où voulez-vous aller?" by Charles Gounod started things off and was followed by the same composer's "Ma belle amie est morte"—both set to poems of Theophile Gautier. Dramatic and splendidly executed, it preceded "L'attente" and "Si vous n'avez rien à me dire" of Saint-Saëns and Victor Hugo. Then three Henri Duparc melodies delighted the post-election audience. I had particularly looked forward to the Duparc, coming right off the wonderful and Gramophone Award-winning reissue of Gérard Souzay's recording on Testament.

The two surviving of three Duparc songs based on the poetry of Baudelaire ("L'invitation au voyage" and "La vie antérieure"), with the Coppée-based "La vague at la cloche" sandwiched in between, had come with an explanation of the program by Mr. Le Roux. They were every bit the sumptuous joy I had hoped them to be.

Roughly progressing from the first melodies that take poetry as an equally important element of the composition to the last great examples of the mélodie française, the recital's first half commenced with the four "L’horizon chimérique" works from 1922, the last song cycle of Gabriel Fauré. Mr. Le Roux had flown to Washington especially for this inaugural concert and was quite wonderful. In fact, if this premiere was anything to judge the coming concerts by, each one will be a highlight in Washington's cultural calendar.

The affable, charming, soft-spoken, and most pleasantly speaking Mr. Le Roux—small wonder for such a supreme communicator of melodies—has a demeanor of delivery that could not have provided a starker contrast to the lively, even quirky, Wolfgang Holzmair recently in town (See Ionarts review). Where Holzmair acted out the songs with his face and entire body, Mr. Le Roux was almost stoic, immobile. No frills here, just delivery of music... and how very enchantingly done, nonetheless!

"Fêtes galantes II" by Claude Debussy—from just before Debussy started to merge the spoken and the sung word entirely—were again informatively introduced and then declaimed in a style so melodic as perhaps only the French language allows. Poulenc's first and shortened song cycle (on Apollinaire poems) is music that comes in animal prints. From "dromadaire" to Tibetan goat to grasshopper, dolphin, crayfish, and finally carp, it is silly, it is witty, mystical, and fun. Over 20 years later, another Apollinaire cycle, "Banalités," was Poulenc's doing. From stark to yearning to tenderness and anguish, it provides for many moods as 1940 must have had in store for a sensitive Frenchman between Paris and his safe country house in the south.

The torch that Gérard Souzay passed on is more than worthily carried by Mr. Le Roux, who sings equally well if a good deal more 'modern' (that is, less wobble). If it has been said about Shirley Horne that "a song is lucky if [she] picks it to sing," I felt that melodies must be similarly inclined to this impeccable ambassador of France's art song's choosing them for a recital.

It was also his performance—not a fault on Mr. Hallak's part—that had the latter's sensitive and warm accompaniment disappear without trace into the music. Perhaps it is the mark of true success of a pianist in a song recital that he shall simply merge unnoticeably. Together with the supple Bösendorfer Mikhail Hallak did just that.

Ravel's swan song—a film commission that was too difficult (and too well?), written (not quite finished) when he was already rather ill—are the "Trois Chansons de Don Quichotte à Dulcinée." Also part of the aforementioned Souzay reissue, they are a supremely moving and awfully pretty set of three songs, superior, in my sometimes humble opinion, at least, to either Schubert's "Schwanengesang" and Brahms's "Vier ernste Gesänge."

Not the least with the election having been decided as it was, the concert was perhaps the first of many important and necessary steps in French-U.S. rapprochement. The wine reception afterwards could only have reinforced this most exquisite evening's extramusical mission. The bonus chanson (also based on a 'real' poem, "La Cigale et la fourmi", or "The Grasshopper and the Ant", by La Fontaine. Thanks to Mr. Wiecking for correcting my mortifyingly silly mistake...) by Charles Trenet was a broad smile-inducing bon-bon.

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