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