Les Salons de Pauline Viardot: Sabine Devieilhe at Wigmore Hall

It was a pity that the uncharacteristically tropical temperatures which
have blessed this holiday weekend probably meant that fewer lovers of
lieder grasped the opportunity to enjoy what was a discerning and elegant
recital – as the sunshine took precedence over ‘la salon’.

I first encountered Devieilhe – whose initial studies focused on the cello
and musicology – when reviewing the DVD of Krzysztof Warlikowski’s
production of Handel’s Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno at
Aix-en-Provence in 2016, in which Devieilhe took the role of Bellazza. I
wrote that she ‘dazzles in Handel’s glittering cascades, uses ornamentation
with exquisite expressiveness, and displays an astonishing agility, leaping
cleanly to the stratosphere and back with startling ease. At times,
Deveilhe is surprisingly fierce, snarling through the upward appoggiaturas,
flashing sparks at the top, but in the Part 2 aria in which she comes to
her fate-sealing decision to spurn Piacere she exhibits a paradoxical and
touching combination of emotional fragility and sincerity which conveys
through impressive strength of tone and control of line.’

Not surprisingly, I excitedly anticipated her arrival on the Covent Garden
stage as the Queen of the Night in the sixth revival of David McVicar’s

Die Zauberflˆte

last autumn, and I was not disappointed. This recital was similarly
characterised by a balance of composure and intensity, by vocal purity and
precision and impassioned expression, with a sustained sensitivity to text.
To put it in a way which may seem facile, Devieihle’s gleaming soprano is
beguilingly easy to listen to … but the ways in which it seduces those
susceptible to vocal beauty are diverse, inventive and masterful. I was
also enormously impressed by the lucidity and sensitivity of Anne Le
Bozec’s invaluable contribution to an aesthetic which accommodated frissons
of colour and fervency with a prevailing self-possession and control.

Daughter of the Spanish tenor Manuel GarcÌa, sister of esteemed
mezzo-soprano Maria Malibran and of baritone Manuel GarcÌa junior, who is
credited with the invention of the first laryngoscope, Pauline Viardot was
a leading social and artistic figure of her day: a talented pianist and
composer, celebrated singer and mistress of a salon to which venerable
artists such as Berlioz and Bizet, Liszt and Rubinstein, as well as new
kids on the block including Debussy and Reynaldo Hahn, flocked. After her
farewell performance in Paris in April 1863, Pauline and her husband Louis
Viardot settled in Baden-Baden, and it was here that she initiated the
salon that would attract musicians, composers, artists and writers from
across Europe.

Devieilhe’s first sequence of songs focused on the French connection, and
she and Le Bozec needed no time to get into their stride. The piano
introduction to Berlioz’s ‘Villanelle’ from Les nuits d’ ÈtÈ (1840) was deliciously cogent and clear – lightly articulated
quavers were supported by an eloquent bass line, creating a cleansing
freshness as the new season drives away the cold winter and the lovers
enter the wood to gather lillies-of-the-valley – while Devieilhe’s youthful
sweetness acquired frissons of incipient passion as the vocal line rose and
fell. The predominant sentiment was one of carefree confidence and
burgeoning, yet contained, ardour. The narrative simplicity of La mort d’OphÈlie (1848) was immensely touching, against which Le
Bozec provided emotional complexity and anguish, blooming richly into the
third stanza’s account of Ophelia’s drowning. Dialectical motifs in the
piano conveyed the airy ballooning of the young girl’s attire and the
eddying force of the water that supports her, as Devieilhe’s increased
vocal intensity wrung notes of anguish from Ophelia’s dying song. The close
– as Ophelia’s dress dragged her down to the depths – was poignant, infused
with sweetness and sadness.

Two songs by Bizet offered character and colour. ‘Pastoral’ (1868) was
tenderly bucolic: the gentle siciliano lilt carried us with
‘Colin’ through the valley as he sang to his shepherdess, and Devieihle’s
pertly confident replies to his wooing acquired a mischievous esprit. A
touch of the ‘exotic’ tinged ‘Adieux de l’hÙtesse arabe’ (1866): Le Bozec
injected judicious sensuousness into her pulsing, repeating rhythm,
avoiding wry parody, while Devieilhe saved the sultriness to the end as the
daughter of the desert’s exhortation to the ‘handsome young white
traveller’ rang with lingering fervency: ‘HÈlas! Adieu! bel Ètranger!
Souviens-toi!’ (Alas! Farewell, fair stranger! Remember!)

Camille Saint-SaÎns had a lifelong friendship with Viardot, and it was he
who introduced Gabriel FaurÈ to the Viardot salon in 1872: the latter was
later briefly engaged to Pauline’s daughter Marianne and dedicated many
songs to members of the family. We heard FaurÈ’s ‘Au bord de l’eau’, in
which the duo created an entrancing lapping lilt to convey the flow of the
stream and gliding clouds on the horizon.

The central sequence of songs turned to Germany. I cannot imagine a
rendition of Clara Schumann’s ‘Ich stand in dunkeln Tr‰unen’ (I stood in
dark dreams) imbued with more simplicity and loveliness. Devieilhe captured
the stillness and the stirrings of the rapt moment of reflection, while Le
Bozec’s enrichening of the accompaniment conjured the deceptive animation
of the portrait which springs mysteriously to life at the end of the first
stanza. The final declaration, ‘ich kann nicht’s glauben,/ Dass ich dich
verloren hab!’, was an utterly sincere and direct expression of grief:
wonderfully but woefully captivating.

I am more used to hearing Robert Schumann’s Myrten Op.25 sung by a
tenor voice, but Devieilhe lent a certain purity to the soaring lines
depicting the image of the beloved as the ‘heaven … in which I float’ (Mein
Himmel du, darein ich schwebe) which was immensely touching. And, if the
soprano struggled a little to project some of the lower lying lines here
and in the ensuing ‘Der Nussbaum’ (The walnut tree), then the tone was
always clean, and the diction excellent. Mendelssohn’s ‘Neue Liebe’ shone
with the thrill of wild nights and danger when, in a moonlit wood,
sightings of ‘elves’ and forest fairies promise bliss, or death. Le Bozec
scurried nimbly, ‡ la Midsummer Night’s Dream, while in the first
two stanzas Devieihle blossomed gloriously from intimation to imagined
consummation. A momentary halting, in a fearful realisation of the abyss,
was pushed aside by a winning brazen confidence at the close.

The final songs carried us to the end of the nineteenth century. Le Bozec’s
accompaniment was laden with the aromatic scents and soul of Debussy’s
‘Romance’, as embodied by the ‘divine lilies’ gathered from the garden of a
lover’s thoughts, while Devieilhe’s almost fairy-tale purity made me long
to hear her sing the role of MÈlisande. Reynaldo Hahn’s ‘Le printemps’
sparkled with freshness and happiness.

We were also treated to two songs by Viardot herself; she composed over 200
songs, made admired vocal arrangements of Chopin’s mazurkas, and produced a
number of chamber works including a lovely salon operetta, Cinderella. That Viardot, in addition to her vocal talents, was
both a fine accompanist, had a talent for musical characterisation and a
sense of fun was evident in ‘HaÔ luli!’ (Willow-waly), the gentle minor-key
complaint of anxious waiting giving way to the warmth of consoling
self-reassurance as Devieilhe let phrase endings hover and linger with
exquisite skill and judgement. Turbulence ensued, with fears of fickleness,
and in this song the highs and lows of love and loneliness were superbly
plundered by both Viardot and her interpreters. In contrast, ‘Aime-moi’ was
replete with confident teasing.

My only small regret was that this was rather a short recital. With the
sequence of songs over in less than 45 minutes, the audience’s vociferous
appreciation drew a welcome encore – Debussy’s ‘Apparation’, a setting of
MallarmÈ, in which Devieihle’s soprano soared with crystalline lustre.

But, we wanted more! Viardot made a memorable impact on the composers and
artists of her day; she was a singer of remarkable vocal, musical and
dramatic range and depth, qualities to which Devieihle can rightly aspire.

This recital was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3.

Claire Seymour

Sabine Devieilhe (soprano), Anne Le Bozec (piano)

Berlioz – ‘Villanelle’ from Les nuits d’ÈtÈ; Pauline Viardot –
‘Hai luli!’; Bizet – ‘Pastorale’ Op.21 No.9; FaurÈ – ‘Au bord de l’eau’
Op.8 No.1; Berlioz – La mort d’OphÈlie; Bizet – ‘Adieux de
l’hÙtesse arabe’ Op. 21 No.4; Clara Schumann – ‘Ich stand in dunklen
Tr‰umen’ Op.13 No.1; Schumann – Myrthen Op.25 (No.1 ‘Widmung’,
No.3 ‘Der Nussbaum’); Mendelssohn – ‘Neue Liebe’ Op.19a No.4; Pauline
Viardot – ‘Aime-moi’; Debussy – ‘Romance’; Hahn – ‘Le printemps’

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 7th May 2018

image_description=Les Salons de Pauline Viardot Sabine Devieilhe (soprano) and Anne Le Bozec (piano) at Wigmore Hall
product_title=Les Salons de Pauline Viardot Sabine Devieilhe (soprano) and Anne Le Bozec (piano) at Wigmore Hall
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id= Above: Sabine Devieilhe

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