Soprano Piau displays the French vocal art at its finest

April 23, 2012 at 1:00 pm

By Keith Powers

Soprano Sandrine Piau performed a recital Saturday night at Jordan Hall, presented by the Celebrity Series. Photo: Sandrine Expilly

With a generous recital of mélodie, lied and art song, French soprano Sandrine Piau created a world of refinement and humor for an intimate gathering at Jordan Hall Saturday evening. A Celebrity Series presentation, Piau was accompanied sensitively by longtime collaborator Susan Manoff.

Piau sang seven sets of 19th- and 20th-century songs, ranging from Felix Mendelssohn to Vincent Bouchot. In works that ranged from thoughtful declamation to dramatic interpretation, Piau sang charmingly, directly and with ardor.

Piau’s soprano is a lyric instrument, with delicate vibrato. Her voice impresses not with the range or power, but with the fluidity and ease of her delivery with nothing ever sounding forced.

Whether Piau is trying to shift her fach—up to this point, she’s had success largely as a Baroque interpreter—or just stepping out to sing music she loves, it matters little. Her Mendelssohn, four songs that alternated lively fantasies with melancholic ruminations, set the tone. The drama came from the text, not from any extraneous emoting.

Music and text were linked in the finest mélodie tradition in four songs from Fauré, including two enigmatic settings of Paul Verlaine. In Prison, the detainee wonders at the blue sky and wind-blown trees up above the roof of his cell, lamenting his dissipated youth, while upward trending chords in the piano’s right hand mock the soprano’s downward trending, minor scale lyrics. “My God, life is there,” she sings, contemplating the world above.

If there was a thematic thread to the first half, it was love, loss and enchantment. Apart from Mendelssohn and Fauré, songs by Chausson and Strauss filled out the mood. The German composer’s Morgen! stood out for its interpretive style: a mix of sprechstimme and lyric moments, it has two separated lovers meet again at the shoreline. A tender dotted G, high above declaimed text, on the first syllable of “wogenblauen” (“blue-waved”) lets listeners understand with subtlety that the meeting holds tremendous emotional meaning.

Four settings by the enfant terrible Vincent Bouchot changed the atmosphere after intermission. Bouchot (b. 1966) dabbles in everything from Baroque opera to contemporary children’s songs. His cycle Galgenlieder, settings from the German poet Christian Morgenstern, create gallows humor for children. Der Hecht (The Pike) explores intestinal upset from excessive vegetarianism while Galgenkindes Wiegenlied (Gallows Child’s Lullaby) needs no explanation.

Piau approached this otherworldly music with the same aplomb. Her acting skills played a larger role of course—stepping away from the piano, raising an eyebrow, shrugging her shoulders—subtle but alluring gestures. The singing remained facile, clear and lyrical, hitting pitches and staying there, not rounding off.

Three songs by Benjamin Britten, with traditional roots, closed the published program. There’s None to Soothe, an anonymous text of dark intent, had Piau take a world-weary seat at the piano bench with Manoff, a gesture of remarkable effect. Britten’s setting of the Christmas carol I Wonder as I Wander seemed a curious concert closer at first, but when Piau turned her back to the audience to sing “the promise of ages it then did recall,” its holiday message sounded like a universal one as well.

Two French encores, Poulenc’s Voyage à Paris and Debussy’s lullaby Bonsoir, closed out an artful performance.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Soprano Piau displays the French vocal art at its finest”

  1. Posted Apr 24, 2012 at 10:04 am by James J. Lewis

    I thought Keith Powers (unlike Matthew Guerrieri of the Globe, who was far too negative in a picky kind of way!) really hit the nail on the head in his very positive review of the Sandrine Piau/Susan Manoff performance. My wife and I were absolutely mesmerized by it, but were disappointed at the plethora of empty seats. We had the same experience at the Kirchschlager recital some time ago. Are these events advertized properly or not?

    James J. Lewis
    Quincy, MA

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