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Susan Graham at the Terrace Theater

Although Washington teems with cultural offerings (if you know where to look), there is always the veil of the provincial that covers the scene – and you can tell it from the distinct absence of excitement that accompanies concerts, recitals, or opera productions. There is scarcely the feeling of an ‘event’ that electrifies large audiences or, even better, the (usually self-declared) connoisseurs.

To have two ‘events’ in as many weeks is a fine fettle for DC: First the NSO’s Salome with Debbie Voigt and this Friday Susan Graham’s recital – alongside pianist Malcolm Martineau – at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, courtesy of the Fortas Chamber Music Concert series.

Presenting a delectable “French tasting menu” designed to present the entire palette of Mélodies (22 composers, only Fauré and Debussy once repeated), split by the intermission into 19th and 20th century-works, Graham/Martineau gave the rapt audience a musical gift to cherish for some time to come.

Assembled by Mr. Martineau (with Graham Johnson and Jörg Demus one of the greats among Lied and Mélodie pianists), these songs were ordered into five groups. The fathers (and grandfathers) of French song – “Night” – sparse anti-romanticism (although no French song is ever truly anti-romantic) – humor / quirkiness – and a closing work by Francis Poulenc.

The consummate artistry with which the two artists presented this (mercifully) varied program was something to behold in its entire impression as well as every detail. Whereas it would be easy to tire in a recital if it presented 24 songs by, say, Fauré, the ability to hear so many different variations on that distinctively French style of art song easily kept your attention and made the evening seem to go much faster than the 100-plus minutes it lasted.

After introducing herself with George Bizet’s Chanson d’avril the duo (as opposed to ‘singer and accompanist’) went through Franck’s Nocturne, a vocalized Chopin/Field-like song of anxious, uncertainty (Graham) above a contemplative mood (Martineau). Upbeat and vigorous and utterly French (like a beret-wearing frog jumping onto red-white checkered picnic cloth with a baguette and bottle of wine under his arm) was “Dans les ruines d’une abbaye” by Fauré. (The Victor Hugo text is about making out in an old abbey, a perfectly French pasttime, after all.) Guitare op.17, No.1 by Lalo (also on a Hugo text) was as brief as it was pressing, tense, and intense; Où voulez-vous aller? a rolling, rollicking lighthearted work on an touchingly innocent poem by Théophile Gautier. Saint-Saëns’ characterful, restless, and pleasantly uncomfortable Danse macabre was musically hiding one or two of the animals from Saint-Saëns’ so-titled carnival.

The cicadas (Les cigales) of Chabrier were extraordinarily well behaved and made for a contemplative, impressionist, hazy piece, striving for more sunlight. Emile Paladilhe, perhaps the least known of the composers among the 22, offered, channeled through Graham and Martineau, the most delicate (and most Schubertian) song of the bunch… although the French language will never allow a song to sound very German for any length of time – and Psyché is no different in that regard. Debussy is always unmistakably Debussy: like matter you can see but not put your hands on… evasive and lingering like a scent that one cannot decide whether to like or dislike: Harmonie du soir. More straight forward is Chausson’s Les papillons in its fluttering, murmuring way and its short intensity very obviously about more than mere butterflies. Chère nuit is another nocturne (Alfred Bachelet); gently searing away, a discomfited Wagneresque melodic turn appearing once or twice. This second segment was capped by Henri Duparc’s Au pays où se fait la guerre. If you know Duparc (and you really should!), you’d not be surprised that this could well have been considered the most precious of a first half of gems. No one stirs the heart and musical sensibility as much as the strange (and rather mad) composer whose name lives on, solely on the strength of the 20 songs that he left posterity.

Other Reviews:

Tim Page, Susan Graham's French Fare Is Delectable (Washington Post, January 29)

Charles T. Downey, Susan Graham and French Song (DCist, January 29)
Maurice Ravel and Le Paon (“The Peackock”), a little, cute drama was sung (and performed as much) with an abundance of humor and grace. André Caplet created musically illustrated Aesop with Le corbeau et le renard (“The Crow and the Fox” – the original “Who moved my Cheese”), footprints and animal sounds all included and delightfully acted out during delivery. The witty Réponse d’une épouse sage (“Response of a Virtuous Wife”) op.35, No.2 by Albert Roussel has a precious and (British?) thin-lipped delicacy about it – which is a façade before a knowing and earthy sense of humor. The 20th century makes itself heard, by now, with increased, gentle dissonances. The same is true for the Messiaen and Debussy that followed (La fiancée perdue, a song in direct musical lineage from Debussy and Duparc – and Colloue sentimental, like faint little bells and frosty breath on a gray winter day ending on nothingness).

It is arguable if a Vocalise is a particular challenge – or just an excuse for laziness or inability to set the composed melody to fitting text. Then again, the gros of listeners appreciates most songs – even the ones in their native tongue – as absolute music with little or no attention to the (usually indiscernible) text. And as such, a Vocalise like Fauré’s is appreciated for its beauty and honesty.

Although Reynaldo Hahn was as French as any Venezuelan could ever hope to be, there is something in his Tyrandis (from Études Latines No.7) that sets his song apart from all the others. For one, there is always a hint of Mozart nearby with Hahn. “The Mad Hatter” (Le cahelier) by Satie on a Gounod melody is as fickle and silly as it can be expected from this l’enfant terrible of French music… while Arthur Honegger proved that you can achieve an old fashioned sound with modern compositional techniques in Trois Chansons de la Petite Sirène. All roads lead to Rome and all Mélodies invariably end up sounding specifically French. Technically not French but ‘Auvergnese’ is Canteloube’s “Lullaby” from his songs of the Auvergne; as irresistible as distinct – caressed by Graham and Martineau. Compared to that soothing sound, Manuel Rosenthal’s La souris d’Angleterre (“The English Mouse”) is a wild little tipsy bout until the trappings of a rough and tragic demise of the protagonist end the English mousey’s life and the song.

The morbid marvel of Francis Poulenc’s La dame de Monte-Carlo officially ended the recital before Hahn’s faux-Bach and incomparably beautiful A Chloris and the Noël Coward ditty of there being something fishy about the French left the audience with memorable encores. Merveilleux, indeed.