Recital of French song from VÈronique Gens and Susan Manoff

With the best will in the world, it could hardly be claimed that the songs
of Gounod and Massenet are possessed of remarkably piano parts. And yet,
from the prelude to the opening O˘ voulez-vous aller, it was often
the piano that proved more communicative, that grabbed and retained my
interest. Indeed, Manoff’s evident love for the music and for music-making
in general proved so infections that I found more in the songs, especially
Gounod’s, than I might ever have imagined possible. Whether it were her
teasing, effortlessly ‘natural’ rubato in the Lamartine setting, Le Soir, the immediate establishment of a cradle rhythm, and her
play therewith, in the Hugo SÈrÈnade, or the unerring sense of
line and shaping the song as a whole in Mignon, (sort of) after
Goethe, it would have been more or less impossible not to warm to these
performance. I certainly did not try. Likewise in the rhythms of Massenet’s Nuit d’Espagne. ‘Generative’ might be thought too Teutonic a way
of considering the music in a song like that; it was nevertheless the word
that came to mind to this incorrigible Teutonophile.

Gens sometimes sounded reticent by comparison, rather as if she were
holding something back for the second half. Perhaps she was. Not that there
was nothing to admire. Above all, there was her ready way with the texts
and her cleanness of line. A touch more vibrato might on occasion, though,
have been welcome – at least to me. The tasteful sadness of Massenet’sElÈgie prove eminently satisfying, though. In Edmond de Polignac’s Lamento, simple and well-formed, far more than a mere curiosity,
both artists left one wanting more. The piano’s harmonic inflections
nevertheless proved the key, or so it seemed.

If I found Gens at times a little ‘white’ of voice in Duparc’s songs – Vie antÈrieure in particular – that is more a matter of taste than
anything else. It remained, however, the piano parts in which I found,
again to my surprise, the greater interest, at least until the ThÈophile
Gautier setting, Lamento. Contemplation of the white tomb, as
opposed to entombment itself, was very much the thing – until the high
drama (relatively speaking) of the third and final stanza. ‘Ah! jamais plus
prËs de la tombe je n’irai…’

Try as I might, I cannot summon up the enthusiasm shared by so many for the
songs of Reynaldo Hahn, whether in the second half proper, or as encores.
Nevertheless, I found myself well able to appreciate the darker
undercurrents of a song such as Mai in performance. Likewise that
ineffably Gallic regret – a clichÈ, I know, but what of it? – in InfidÈlitÈ, another Gautier setting. Moreover, the way Manoff set
up musical expectations through rhythm in the Hugo RÍverie
reminded me very much of the opening Gounod set.

Offenbach’s cynical humour is probably just more appealing to me. I do not
think I had ever heard his songs before. The two pieces from his Six Fables de La Fontaine, pretty much operettic scenas in their
own right, made me keen to hear more. Gens now seemed far more at ease,
more readily communicative. ‘She played humorously with the closing phrase
of ‘Le Corbeau et le renard’ – ‘qu’on ne l’y prendrait plus’ – with no need
to underline. The preceding ‘La Cigale et la fourmi’ closed with a true
invitation to the dance. This was by now a true partnership, whether
between soprano and pianist or grasshopper and ant.

Mark Berry

Gounod: O˘ voulez-vous aller?; Le Soir;O ma belle rebelle; SÈrÈnade; Mignon; Viens, les gazons sont verts; Edmond de Polignac: Lamento
; Massenet: Chant provenÁal; ElÈgie;Nuit d’Espagne; Duparc: Chanson triste; La Vie antÈrieure; Extase; Lamento; Reynaldo
Hahn: Le Rossignol des lilas; Mai; Les Cygnes;InfidÈlitÈ; RÍverie; Offenbach: Six Fables de La Fontaine: ‘La Cigale et la fourmi’, ‘Le Corbeau
et le renard’.

Wigmore Hall, London, Monday 2 July 2018.

image_description=Recital of French song from VÈronique Gens and Susan Manoff, Wigmore Hall
product_title=Recital of French song from and Susan Manoff, Wigmore Hall
product_by=A review by Mark Berry
product_id= Above: VÈronique Gens

Photo credit: Franck Juery