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A Recital of French Art Song


By John Sidgwick

LONDON, 19 September 2002 - Privileged moments in music come only too rarely and when they do occur, it is almost always quite unexpectedly. I was fortunate enough to be present at one last night.

Knowing my interest in French art song, the actor, Tom Conti, had invited me to a recital in his house in London's Hampstead. He and his wife are in the habit of organising concerts for singers and instrumentalists and, as one might expect from a couple steeped in the theatre, they know how to create an ideal setting and atmosphere. The room was perfect and an audience of fifty-or-so people were comfortably ensconced in a beautiful salon which could have been specifically designed for this type of entertainment.

I take the risk of labouring the point a bit. But it has never seemed to me that the French art song, the mélodie, is suited to concert halls. Its true place is the salon. This unique musical form is in fact a privileged way of reciting poetry. And here we come to the nub of the matter. Unless the audience can understand the singer's words as easily as if they were being recited, you might as well forget the whole thing. The trouble is that singers like singing and only too often, that's what they do: sing and go hang the words. The art of performing the mélodie is to enhance the poetry with sung sounds.

On this occasion, the English mezzo-soprano Patricia Hammond, gave a moving and fascinating demonstration of what can be achieved and she was admirably partnered by an exceptionally gifted pianist, Zoë Mather. At the age of twenty-eight, Miss Hammond is in full possession of her vocal powers and she exploits these entirely in the interests of both poet and composer. Moreover, she does not rest on the laurels of possessing a hauntingly beautiful voice as some singers might be tempted to do; on the contrary, without ever departing from the purest vocal sound, she constantly varies its colour and intensity according to the mood and meaning of the words.

Miss Hammond had devised a wide-ranging programme which included well-known pieces by Chausson, Bizet, Poulenc and Fauré. Noblesse oblige. The overall theme was that of love in a great many of its variants from the most trivial to the most profound. I was particularly struck by her rendering of Bizet's setting of Victor Hugo's Les Adieux de l'Hôtesse Arabe whose sultry and tempting atmosphere she conveyed admirably. And then there was Gabriel Fauré's Automne, words by Armand Silvestre. In this piece, which is at the other end of the emotional scale, Miss Hammond achieved an inner stillness and intensity that defies description. Moreover, each and every word could be heard, crystal clear, as was the case throughout her recital.

It is Miss Hammond's contention that Joseph Kosma's setting of Jacques Prévert's Feuilles Mortes (Autumn Leaves), far from being a mere cabaret song, is a true representative of the art song - and that is precisely what it became in her treatment of it. Avoiding all excess, she sang in sheer simplicity and in so doing, lent the song quite unsuspected depth, well beyond the mere nostalgia to which we have been accustomed.

It has to be said that there was quite a bit of gloom and doom in the poetry that Miss Hammond had chosen to sing You don't get much more tragic than Hermann Bemberg's Chant Hindou, where a distraught widow declaims, "All that is left for me is tears". So, when it came to the poem by Eugène Adenis entitled Plaintes d'Amour with which Miss Hammond ended her recital, one might have expected an expression of resigned weariness over the fundamental sadness of love. After all, three verses with variants on "love flourishes for a while and then like a rose it withers" do not incite to gaiety. It was clear, however, that Cécile Chaminade, that utterly charming French pianist and composer, who died in Monte Carlo in 1944 in her eighties, took a different view. Sad, perhaps, but certainly not tragic. Life goes on. The song begins and is filled throughout with exuberant arpeggios on the piano, superbly executed on this occasion by Zoë Mather. Miss Hammond's performance, in which she displayed a blend of wry humour and tender evocation, was totally in keeping with Chaminade's vision.

Related: Patricia Hammond Web Site

John Sidgwick writes on music in Britain and France for Culturekiosque.com.

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