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Virgins, Vixens and Viragos
see end of review for details
Susan Graham (mezzo); Malcolm Martineau (piano)
rec. 6-8 July 2012, Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth
Original texts and English, French and German translations included
ONYX 4105 [74:39]

What a fantastic title for a recital! This latest programme from Susan Graham and Malcolm Martineau is thoughtfully constructed and superbly executed.
 
At its heart is a group of six Mignon songs by various composers, which is perceptively chosen, not least in terms of juxtaposing familiar settings with some which may be less so. I freely confess that I hadn’t realised Tchaikovsky had made this Goethe setting - Miss Graham sings it in Russian even though it’s listed in the booklet under its German title. It’s an attractive setting and, as annotator Richard Stokes says, it boasts an “indestructible tune”. Rather oddly it’s placed between what are, effectively, three versions of Kennst du das Land; on the one hand, the songs by Liszt and Duparc and, on the other hand, Wolf’s renowned lied. I say oddly because all those three composers set the same poem - Tchaikovsky does not - and one might have thought the three pieces might more logically follow each other. However, that’s a minor point. It’s fascinating to hear Duparc’s response - in French - to these words - he sets one verse less than Liszt and Wolf. From simple beginnings Duparc’s mélodie expands into a passionate outpouring. Susan Graham demonstrates here, as elsewhere on the disc, what a wonderful affinity she has for French repertoire. I liked the Liszt setting too - and her performance of it - but, good piece though it is, it’s not quite in the same league as Wolf’s magnificent lied. His Kennst du das Land is justly celebrated as a yearning masterpiece and Graham and Martineau give a surging, yet also subtly shaded rendition of it. Earlier in this Mignon group I enjoyed very much Susan Graham’s deeply felt way with Schubert’s melancholy setting.
 
I mentioned Miss Graham’s affinity with French music. Happily, she includes a generous helping on this particular musical menu gastronomique. Her Berlioz performance is wonderful: here she deploys gorgeous, full tone and, as so often on this disc, treats us to some very expressive singing. She embraces and conveys the varied moods of Poulenc’s little cycle of six songs. She’s very intense in the fourth one, ‘Mon cadavre est doux comme un gant’ and in the song that follows, ‘Violon’, her singing is tremendously involving. The set closes with ‘Fleurs’, an exquisite song which receives a touching performance. Here I really admired Susan Graham’s enviably creamy legato. The notes include the instructions that Poulenc gave to his singer about the delivery of each song and I was interested to read that he directed that two or three of them should be sung simply or ‘with humility’. Some might argue that Susan Graham’s highly sophisticated singing eschews simplicity. That may be so but I for one am not going to argue in the face of such artistry. There’s a bit more Poulenc to come. We’ve more or less reached the encore section of this recital by the time his Les chemins de l’amour is heard but it’s well worth the wait. It’s an oh-so-French waltz and Miss Graham turns in a delicious account of it.
 
Before the delights of the Poulenc cycle there’s a somewhat unfamiliar offering in the shape of Joseph Horovitz’s scena Lady Macbeth. For this Horovitz has woven together a text compiled from three key speeches by the Queen in Shakespeare’s play. The result is something of a mini-portrait of Lady Macbeth. The words are treated in a vividly dramatic, highly charged way and Miss Graham gives a searing reading. I could imagine this piece being very effective in recital; it certainly is in this recording.
 
In complete contrast, the last four items in the programme - all by American composers except for the Poulenc - have a cabaret feel to them; and why not? I used to think that Cole Porter’s double-entendre-rich song was amusing but, frankly, it’s been done to death; it seems that every diva wants to include it in recital programmes. Give it a bit of a rest, ladies, and we’ll probably enjoy it more when we do hear it. Here I think that Susan Graham hams it up and underlines some of the double meanings rather too heavily - and a bit more than you might expect under studio conditions. I think she’s much more successful with the Vernon Duke song; she gives a winning performance of this fine example of cabaret songs, paying it the compliment of lavishing just as much artistry on it as anything else on the programme - and rightly so. Stephen Sondheim’s clever parody of The Girl from Ipanema is the real encore and is done as such; it’s great fun.
 
This is a delicious recital. Susan Graham’s lustrous voice and intelligent approach to a well-conceived and nicely varied programme gave me consistent pleasure, as did the pianism of Malcolm Martineau, which is splendid at every turn. My only slight criticism of the album is that though all the texts are provided, which is very welcome, the layout of them isn’t always ideally clear and that isn’t helped by the very small typeface. However, that’s only a small drawback to a rewarding and very enjoyable recital disc.
 
John Quinn 

Track listing
Henry PURCELL
(1659-1695)
The Blessed Virgin’s Expostulation [7:13]
Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
La Mort d’Ophélie [6:59]
Six Mignon songs from Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Lied der Mignon: Heiβ mich nicht redden [1:40]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
So laβt mich scheinen [2:39]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Mignon’s Lied [6:09]
Henri DUPARC (1848-1933)
Romance de Mignon [3:56]
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt [2:59]
Hugo WOLF (1860-1903)
Kennst du das Land [5:39]
Joseph HOROVITZ (b. 1926)
Lady Macbeth (scena) (1970) [7:15]
Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Fiançailles pour rire [13:30]
Cole PORTER (1891-1964)
The Physician [4:20]
Vernon DUKE (1903-1969)
Ages Ago [3:24]
Francis POULENC
Les chemins de l’amour [3:36]
Stephen SONDHEIM (b. 1930)
The Boy from Tacarembo La Tumbe del Fuego Santa Malipas Zatatecas La Junta del Sol y Cruz [2:50]

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