A wonderful recital of French song from Sabine Devieilhe and Alexandre Tharaud at Wigmore Hall

When I heard the French soprano Sabine Devieilhe make her solo debut at Wigmore Hall in May 2018, the only quibble I had with her charming programme, Les Salons de Pauline Viardot, was that it was a bit brief, not quite filling the lunchtime recital’s allotted hour.  The subsequent opportunity to hear Devieilhe present a full evening recital at Wigmore Hall, in October 2020, was lost when her scheduled performance of French mélodie – a programme which she and pianist Alexandre Tharaud had performed on their just-released disc, Chanson d’Amour – fell victim to coronavirus travel restrictions.  So, it was very pleasing finally to be able to enjoy a journey through French song of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – during which, for those familiar with the duo’s aforementioned recorded programme, the musicians had a couple of surprises up their sleeve.

Devieilhe and Tharaud are evidently of like musical mind.  Throughout the recital voice and piano were entirely integrated, as were music and word.  Indeed, there was surely scarcely a musical detail that did not have its origins in poetry.  That’s not to suggest that there was anything overly cerebral, or mannered, about the presentation of these French songs – by Fauré, Debussy, Ravel, Poulenc and the less well-known Louis Beydts.  While the musicians’ intellectual preparation of this repertoire had clearly been considerable and sophisticated, and the musical rigour was unwavering, the pianist’s infinite nuance and the soprano’s crystalline precision were matched by intensity and passion, as well as irony and theatre.

At times, Devieilhe almost seemed to chisel out the vocal line with a fine scalpel but the result was an exquisite elegance, not coolness.  Able to leap to the vocal stratosphere, and descend, with seeming effortlessness and pin-point accuracy, to support and sustain a high-hanging silvery thread, and to produce subtle gradations of colour, Devieilhe is able to make her light soprano speak beyond its weight, as it were.  And, as her soprano descends it can be surprisingly full-bodied and rich in the middle register.  I have heard Tharaud play at Wigmore Hall twice before, with the French cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras, and here he displayed the same subtle responsiveness, coloristic range and musical refinement that I enjoyed on those two previous occasions. 

The earliest songs in the programme were those by Fauré.  “Our love is light and gentle,” begins ‘Notre amour’, words that aptly describe Tharaud’s flowing triplets, which created such a delicate intimacy with the vocal line.  Devieilhe captured the ethereal quality of Fauré’s song, saving richness and colour for the final ecstatic declaration, “Notre amour est chose éternelle” (Our love is eternal).  ‘Après un rêve’ moved fluidly through its dreamy recollections, Devieilhe’s soprano strikingly fervent when conjuring heavens splendours and celestial fires glimpsed by the lovers when the clouds part, and glistening at the close with silvery wonder at the mysteries of the night.  ‘Au bord de l’eau’ expresses the inseparability of two beloveds, a unity perfectly embodied by the performers’ overlapping exchanges which suggested that the lovers are entirely contained within their own passion.

From Fauré’s perfumed Romanticism, the recital ventured forwards into the impressionistic, neoclassical, and jazz- and folk-inspired terrain of the early twentieth century.  In 1904, at the request of Pierre Aubry who needed musical illustrations for a lecture he was giving on Greek folksong, Maurice Ravel harmonised six Greek popular melodies from Chios island which had been collected by Hubert Pernot in 1888-89.  Devieilhe and Tharaud performed them with a lovely delicacy, especially the second song, ‘Là-bas, ver l’église’, with its ‘antique’ dignity and air of reverence – both of which were conveyed by the slightest of the piano’s nuances and a lovely rich bass tone. ‘Chanson des cueilleuses de lentisques’ saw Devieilhe turn inwards, gazing into the piano at the opening and close, as if to suggest the humility of the poet-speaker, so awed by his beloved’s angelic beauty.  The confident chevalier of ‘Quel galant m’est comparable’ was affectionately characterised, his boldness and self-belief emphasised by the sparseness of the accompaniment and the unadorned directness of the vocal line. ‘Tout gai!’ was a cheekily flippant conclusion to the sequence.

In place of ‘Fêtes galantes’ which represents Poulenc on Chansons d’amour, here we had La courte paille (The short straw, 1960).  Poulenc’s first musical depictions of childhood date from 1934: the Quatre chansons pour enfants, which veer from sweet charm to ribaldry, while the L’Histoire de Babar was inspired by a visit to his young cousins that the composer made in the summer of 1940, during which he improvised music during a reading of the story.  La courte paille sets seven texts by Maurice Carême, who was described by baritone Pierre Bernac as the ‘poet of children’, and was written for the soprano Denise Duval, Poulenc’s friend, muse and confidante, whom he intended would sing the songs to her six-year-old son.  Duval never performed the work; she claimed that they did not suit her voice, though this seems unlikely given her long history of collaboration with Poulenc.

I’d not heard La court paille performed live before – and I’m not surprised that Devieilhe needed the support of a score (though I would have preferred her to use a music stand, as the held score was a little distracting) – and this rendition was delightful: intelligent, graceful, delicately ironic.  The narrow vocal range and repetitive ostinati of ‘Le sommeil’ conveyed the vision of the restless child with simplicity and a tender irony.  ‘Quelle aventure’ scurried and scampered, and Devieilhe skipped lightly through the patter and outlandish vocal leaps.  The easy languidity of ‘La reine de coeur’ was dangerously deceptive, the final tierce de Picardie evoking the seductive power of the Queen’s “hoar-frosted castle with its lovely lead windows of moon”.  ‘Ba, be, bi, bo, bu’ was a brief and brash introduction to Puss in Boots which skidded and crashed to a conclusion!  In contrast, ‘Les anges musiciens’ were heavenly indeed, while in ‘Le carafon’ Devieilhe conjured the characterful voices of the disgruntled, friendless carafe and the obliging wizard who seeks Merlin’s aid.  A reverent stillness preceded ‘Lune d’avril’: here, Tharaud’s gentle syncopations underlined the surreality of the poetic imagery – “Le pêcher au coeur de safran,/ Le poisson qui rit du grésil” (the peach tree with a saffron heart, the fish who laughs at the sleet) – while Devieilhe’s devotional vocal line reached a peak of stillness with the pacifistic plea, “on a brisé tous les fusils” (all the guns have been destroyed).

Another first for me was Chansons peour les oiseaux by Louis Beydts (1895-1953), which was also not part of the Chansons d’amour programme.  I confess that before this concert I knew almost nothing of Beydts’ life, career or music, but a perusal of Grove tells me that he was the son of a wine merchant, whose initial interest in classical studies was replaced by a passion for music which saw him compose several successful operettas (MoineauLa S.A.D.M.P., Le voyage de Tchong-Li) as well as many songs, incidental music, and cinema scores, and become a music critic, and, in 1952, director of the Opéra-Comique.  Chansons pour les oiseaux, composed in 1948, sets poems by Paul Fort which present us with four birds: a dove, a pigeon, a bluebird and a canary.  Devieilhe characterised this avian quartet with masterful coloratura virtuosity, enchanting lyrical flights and a delightful whimsical flavour.  Soaring ethereality was matched by exuberant theatricality.  ‘L’oiseau bleu’ was by turns majestic, ecstatic, and finally, as the vocal line sailed upwards to a sustained high D-flat, transcendant.  The little yellow canary – whose bizarre conversation, miaows and all, with the cats and mice, was worthy of a comic operetta – came to a brutal end at the hands of the boorish old monster, the kitten’s father, Lustucru, “Qui l’a croqué tout cru!” (who swallowed it up raw!).

On this journey through French song, the excursions were varied, but Debussy was the mainstay of the recital, beginning with ‘Nuit d’étoiles’ which drew the listener with gentle care into an intimate musical embrace.  Tharaud’s own transcription of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune preceded the three songs which concluded the first half of the programme.  Tharaud has described the ten-minute orchestra pieces as ‘slow, sweeping’ and explains that he has added ‘some depth to the piano texture, to maintain the tension.  The centre of the movement is a tremendous moment that somehow has to be conveyed with two hands, which calls for an element of virtuosity’.  The virtuosity and musical imagination were indeed impressive, but, however skilful the pianist’s evocation of colour and texture, the orchestral Prélude’s waves of sound embrace performers and listeners alike, so that one experiences the music from within and it’s hard to imagine a single piano recreating this ‘spatial’ quality.  That said, I guess that this transcription was wonderfully satisfying for Tharaud to perform!  ‘L’âme évaporée’ (The spent and suffering soul) followed segue, leading to ‘Le romance d’Ariel’ and ‘Apparition’, the high tessitura of these songs showcasing the impressive strength, control and lustre of Devieihle’s soprano.  

Debussy’s Ariettes oubliées concluded the recital.  The opening ‘C’est l’extase’ was a highpoint of the evening, rapturous, rich and silken.  Here we returned to the sensuous bliss of Fauré’s songs, though ‘Il pleure dans mon coeur’ was wonderfully poised.  To be honest, by this point in the evening I was simply seduced by the way Devieilhe and Tharaud entered and travelled the emotional contours of the music and the poetry, so much so that I can’t remember much about the details!  And, absolutely no complaints from me this time about the length of the recital – especially as we had two wonderful encores: ‘Ariel’s Song’ from Ravel’s L’Enfant et les sortilèges and ‘Viens, hymen’ from Rameau’s Les Indes Galantes.

Claire Seymour

Sabine Devieilhe (soprano), Alexandre Tharaud (piano)

Debussy – ‘Nuit d’étoiles’; Fauré – ‘Notre amour’ Op.23 No.2, ‘Après un rêve’ Op.7 No.1, ‘Au bord de l’eau’ Op.8 No.1; PoulencLa courte paille; DebussyPrélude à l’après-midi d’un faun (transcribed by Alexandre Tharaud), Romance: L’âme évaporée, ‘La romance d’Ariel’, ‘Apparition’; BeydtsChansons pour les oiseaux; Ravel5 mélodies populaires grecques; DebussyAriettes oubliées

Wigmore Hall, London; Sunday 12th September 2021.

ABOVE: Sabine Devieilhe (c) Fabien Monthubert