Stéphane Degout and Simon Lepper

Lessons in Love and Violence

– and Simon Lepper. We began with Fauré, whose songs alas often leave
me cold. (I have little doubt the fault lies with me.) Such was not the
case here, however. Perhaps I have at long last found the key to the door:
I do hope so. That Degout was fully in command of an often elusive – and
not only to non-Francophone artists – idiom might have been expected; that
I was put in mind of the mastery, rather than any specifics, of a
Gérard Souzay had me realise from the off that these would be no
ordinary performances. Lepper, in the opening Aurore, captured
just the right sort of ‘floating’ tone to the piano part too, the
composer’s harmonic subtleties suspended. Surpassing elegance here and in
the following Poème d’un jour did not preclude death (of the
stars) at the close but rather proved its agent. Turbulence and torment
naturally marked Toujours – the sequence was splendidly programmed
– albeit within a similar yet far from identical framework. Lepper was
permitted in its final stanza a hint at Lisztian pianism, which he
gratefully took – and communicated. Fauré sometimes puts me in mind of
Elgar; for me, it was an almost Elgarian dignity that characterised the
prelude to Adieu, even though chronologically that was the wrong
way around. Automne offered a nice link to Brahms, the music
darkening, the crucial role for the piano bass line brought out without
exaggeration. A perfect sadness in its final line – Où jadis sourit ma
jeunesse! – sounded not un-Wagnerian. Is it fanciful to hope for an
Amfortas some day…?

There is certainly no problem with Degout’s German: clean and meaningful as
his musical line. The dark simplicity of Brahms’s O kühler Wald mirrored that forest itself. Darker shadows
(‘dunklere Schatten’) were sought and found in Die Mainacht,
providing relief for its premonition of the soprano solo movement in Ein deutsches Requiem. Brief, unmistakeably late, inner tumult
characterised Auf dem Kirchhofe, even before its chorale
reference: ‘O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden’. It is a different, yet not
entirely unrelated Einsamkeit – and certainly was in performance –
that we heard in Feldeinsamkeit. As ever, Degout’s reserves of
breath seemed endless. Alte Liebe seemed almost to reminisce about
Schubert, retaining consciousness that reminiscence was now all that was
possible: old love indeed. Darker, still more Romantic, Nicht mehr zu dir zu gehen seemed almost – whether I am
sentimentalising or not – to speak of Brahms’s passion for Clara Schumann.
And it was a Brahmsian echo of Schubert’s Winterreise crow that
seemed to hover over Willst du, dass ich geh? It may have ended in
the major mode, but it was hardly affirmative. Brahms’s ‘lateness’ spoke
for itself, here and elsewhere; it neither needed nor received underlining.

Schumann (Robert, that is) had the second half: his Kerner Lieder,
op.35. It was a stormy night indeed with which the set opened, thus picking
up tendencies from both Fauré and Brahms, yet also turned us towards
new paths – or Neue Bahnen, as someone, I believe, once put it.
The ambiguity of its close seemed almost to open a new door for us; there
was certainly no reason not to follow its hint. An illumined quality to the
following ‘Stirb, Lieb’ und Freud’!’ proved spellbinding, never quite
permitting one to put a finger on the source of that light: artistry
indeed. Muffled bells sounded not only on the line in question (‘Alsbald
der Glocken dumpfer Klang’), but subliminally throughout, prefiguring in
context the ambiguous swagger of ‘Wanderlied’. Schumannesque sadness was
captured to a tee in ‘Erstes Grün’, nowhere more so than in Lepper’s
piano rubato, although not only there. A forest path took on metaphysical
meaning too in ‘Sehnsucht nach der Waldgesang’, whilst ‘Auf das trinkglas
eines verstorbenes Freundes’ seemed already to revisit past joys: the song
of travel heard, as it were, through the aural lens of ‘Erstes Grün’,
prior to the magical moonlight of the final stanza. It seemed as if the
question of ‘Frage’ was posed without ever having arisen. Be that as it
may, ‘Stille Tränen’ quite rightly offered the emotional climax.
Relief and repose of a sort, in ‘Wer machte dich so krank’, again hinted at
a hushed awe not so distant from Parsifal, an impression of holy
ground furthered in ‘Alte Laute’. If only an angel might have woken the
narrator (‘Und aus dem Traum, dem bangen, weckt mich ein Engel nur’), what
if that angel were actually singing? Such perhaps was the thought that made
the appreciative audience so reluctant to break rapt silence at its close.

Brahms’s Lerchengesang, op.70 no.2, seemed very much to come
‘after’ Schumann’s set. Degout and Lepper offered it as an encore that was
beautiful in the very best sense: rare, painful, the opening of a new path
to something else, something deeper.

Mark Berry


, op.39 no.1; Poème d’un jour, op.2; Automne, op.18
no.3; Brahms: O kühler Wald, op.72 no.3;Die Mainacht, op.43 no.2; Auf dem Kirchhofe, op.105 no.4;Feldeinsamkeit, op.86 no.2; Alte Liebe, op.72 no.1;Nicht mehr zu dir zu gehen, op.32 no.2;Willst du, dass ich geh? op.71 no.4; Schumann: Kerner Lieder, op.35. Wigmore Hall, London, Tuesday 5 June 2018.

image_description=Stéphane Degout [Photo © Jean-Baptiste Millot]
product_title=Stéphane Degout and Simon Lepper
product_by=A review by Mark Berry
product_id=Above: Stéphane Degout [Photo © Jean-Baptiste Millot]