02 Jul 2012

Susan Graham, Wigmore Hall

Embodying a range of iconic female characters from history, literature and song — both the ‘good’ and the ‘not-so-good’ — Susan Graham delivered a wonderfully suave and entertaining performance before a delighted Wigmore Hall audience.

Much of the success, both musical and theatrical, was surely due to the finely-tuned partnership between Graham and her frequent collaborator, pianist Malcolm Martineau. The ease with which Martineau moved between idioms, the naturalness and fluency of the dialogue he shaped between piano and voice, and his sensitive gradation of dynamics and timbre all contributed immensely to the superb, sustained quality of the recital.

Graham did, however, take a little while to get into her stride. Beginning in ‘beatific’ mode, suitably attired in a white, floating frock, she appropriately restrained from unleashing the full warmth of her richly lyrical timbre in the opening song, Purcell’s ‘Tell me, some pitying angel’ (which presents Mary’s prayer upon finding the twelve-year-old Jesus missing, when he remains behind to talk to the elders in the temple). But, while elegant, with clarity of tone and line, the phrases felt a little constrained, the persona not so readily communicated, as if this particular ‘costume’ didn’t quite fit. This is a dramatic, recitative-like aria, almost operatic in intensity, the virtuosic vocal line reflecting Mary’s rapidly changing emotions, and Graham built up the tension effectively, her increasingly desperate questions underpinned by Martineau’s pointedly intense harmonies. After the meandering movement of Mary’s anxious “How shall my soul its motions guide?” and the dense chromaticism which conveys her “lab'ring thoughts”, at the song’s close, “but oh! I fear the child”, Graham demonstrated the whispered, but crystal-clear pianissimo which touched the heart-strings many times during the evening.

More comfortable ‘inhabiting’ Shakespeare’s Ophelia, and perfectly attuned to the French idiom and language, Graham gave a tender rendition of Hector Berlioz's song ‘La mort d'Ophélie’. Inspired by the young composer’s infatuation for Harriet Smithson, the Irish Shakespearean actress, this song is gently lyrical rather than agonisingly tragic, and the softly oscillating piano introduction perfectly established a fitting mood. Graham can control the smallest nuances equally well at both ends of her register, casting a womanly glow in the lower range, while floating ethereally at the top. Martineau beautifully shaped and sustained the narrative in the in-between-verse interludes, demonstrating the genuine empathy shared by the performers.

Next came Goethe: since her first manifestation in his novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (“Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship”) countless composers have been fascinated and inspired by Mignon’s mystery and ambiguity. Graham presented German lieder by Schubert, Schumann and Wolf, as well as less well-known settings by Liszt, Tchaikovsky, and Henri Duparc. Schubert’s ‘Heiß mich nicht reden’ is a poignant poem for the enigmatic Mignon, contrasting her stoical suffering with more comforting hopes, a juxtaposition delicately reflected in the sensitive modulations between major and minor modes. Graham expertly shaped the emotional movement, using dynamics, harmonic colour and vocal timbre to express Mignon’s faith that “the hard rock opens up its bosom,/ does not begrudge earth its deeply hidden springs”. A brief piano postlude, cadencing in the tonic major, provided a quiet moment of consolation.

Schumann's ‘So laßt mich scheinen’ followed, in which Martineau created a more animated drama through the polyphonic energy of the accompaniment lines. Graham’s final cry, encompassing a dramatic vocal leap, ‘Too early I grew old with grief -/ make me forever young again!’ was affecting, but it was not until Liszt’s ‘Mignon Lied’ that she was able to settle securely into the lustrous Romantic idiom which allows her to demonstrate both the silky sheen and airy translucency for which she is renowned. Leaping melodic contours were handsomely crafted and together with the increasingly fragmented accompaniment drove the music forward with questioning urgency, culminating in a breath-taking final pianissimo which movingly, but without sentimentality, conveyed Mignon’s frailty.

An adept linguist, Graham now moved further eastwards, finding a dark beauty in Tchaikovsky’s sensuous melodies in ‘Nyet, tolko tot, kto, znal’ (‘None but the lonely heart’), in which Martineau’s pulsing syncopations reinforced the expressive power of the voice. Henri Duparc's ‘Romance de Mignon’ was radiant and sweet, culminating with a deep piano postlude suggestive of the lovers’ passion. And the mini-series rose to its heights with Wolf's ‘Kennst du das Land’; the most operatic of these Mignon settings, Wolf’s soaring lines allowed Graham to fully reveal the power, control and Straussian splendour of her instrument.

Swapping her virginal white for a slinky black number, Graham returned after the interval in a rather less sombre mood, beginning the second half with a rhetorical, highly dramatic performance of Joseph Horowitz’s scena, ‘Lady Macbeth’. The restless ambition of the ruthless queen’s spirit was perfectly captured by Graham as she moved seamlessly between parlando, recitative and arioso, supported by Martineau’s imposingly agitated accompaniment.

In Poulenc's song cycle ‘Fiancailles pour rire’ (‘Lighthearted Betrothal’) Graham demonstrated her eye/ear for subtle nuance and detail, and for story-telling. Ranging from an almost sacred purity (as at the opening of ‘Dans l’herbe’) to the informal knowingness of ‘La dame d’André’, from tender pathos (at the close of ‘Mon cadaver est doux comme un gant’) to the insouciant swagger of ‘Violon’, this was a superbly fashioned and assured performance, in which Graham was not afraid to take risks but never crossed the line into hyperbole or melodrama.

Things began to loosen up with a carefree rendering of Messager’s ‘J’ai deux amants’ and from here on Graham was in cabaret mode, exchanging relaxed, witty repartee with her pianist and audience, and treating us to some light numbers by Cole Porter and Vernon Duke, before rounding things off with Ben Moore’s ‘Sexy Lady’, a specially commissioned song which —with apt illustrative musical quotation —regales us with the ups and downs of the mezzo-soprano’s lot —a life spent en travesti fending off competition from the currently in-fashion crop of countertenors! Such satirical self-reflection engendered more than a little self-indulgence, but if Graham showed her diva credentials, the hamming-up felt just right and the humour was genuine and sharp.

The audience seemed reluctant to let Graham go, but fortunately she and Martineau were obviously having as much fun as we were, and were happy to oblige with three encores which, in microcosm, displayed the full range of Graham’s deeply impressive talents.

Claire Seymour


Purcell: Tell me, some pitying angel (The Blessed Virgin’s Expostulation)
Berlioz: La mort d’Ophélie
Schubert: Heiß mich nicht reden
Schumann: So laßt mich scheinen
Liszt: Mignons Lied (Kennst du das Land)
Tchaikovsky: None but the lonely heart
Duparc: Romance de Mignon
Wolf: Kennst du das Land
Horovitz: Lady Macbeth - a Scena
Poulenc: Fiançailles pour rire
Messager: J’ai deux amants from ‘L’amour masqué’
Porter: The Physician
Vernon Duke: Ages Ago (arr. Roger Vignoles)
Moore: Sexy Lady