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Henri Duparc
25 Apr 2014

Songlives: Henri Duparc

The latest recital in the Songlives series at the Wigmore Hall turned the spotlight on a figure whose short compositional career and small oeuvre might have been expected to confine him to the margins of musical history, but whose name has in fact become almost synonymous with a whole genre of song: mélodie.

Songlives: Henri Duparc

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Henri Duparc


Henri Duparc was born in Paris in 1848 into a wealthy, aristocratic family. He studied piano, and later composition, with César Franck; his earliest compositions, dating from the 1860s, include Six reveries and Feuilles volantes for piano, and a sonata for cello and piano. But in 1885, aged just 37 years old and with a burgeoning career as a successful song-writer ahead of him, Duparc stopped composing. Always highly sensitive and nervous, mental illness which was diagnosed as neurasthenia was accompanied by increasing vision loss, eventually leading to total blindness.

Ever the perfectionist, in later years Duparc destroyed most of his music, leaving few works to posterity; but his seventeen extant songs epitomise the qualities of mélodie: clarity and intensity of expression, diversity of mood, and sophisticated, cultivated union of music and word. Mezzo soprano Sarah Connolly and baritone Hank Neven performed a programme devised by pianist Malcolm Martineau, taking us on a chronological journey through the songs which assured Duparc’s immortality and revealing the astonishing talent which was so sadly curtailed.

Connolly’s sumptuous tone and lyricism are ideally suited to the expressive richness of these songs. In the earliest of them, ‘Chanson Triste’, the gentle, well-shaped melody, reminiscent of Gounod, rested calmly on the warm ripples of the accompaniment, as the poet-speaker bathes in memories of his departed beloved. The voice brightened with a joyful outburst of hope that his inner peace might be restored by such ruminations, and this thread of light suffused the tranquil piano postlude.

‘Romance de Mignon’ was originally suppressed by Duparc as falling short of his exacting standards; it is fairly unsophisticated in terms of its expressive chromaticism but the dark dissonances and the wide expanse of the accompaniment contribute to an operatic rhetoric which Connolly and Martineau dramatically exploited.

‘Au pays où se fait la guerre’ pays melodic homage to Schubert’s ‘Der Erlkönig’. From the ringing opening motif to the angry growl of the final stanza, Martineau’s ever-changing, often strikingly contrapuntal accompaniment lines and textures, created precise moods complementing the word-painting in the vocal line. The song is thought to have been derived from material for a discarded opera; Connolly certainly revealed the range of emotions present in Théophile Gautier’s text, from ecstasy to despair. The growing intensity and sophistication of Duparc’s language and form was evident in ‘L’invitation au voyage’, a setting from Baudelaire’s Fleur du mal, which was composed while the composer was serving in the garrison during the Prussian siege in the winter of 1870—71. The performers masterfully crafted the whole, creating urgent movement forwards; the calm composure of the vision of the loved one’s eyes where dwell ‘order et beauté/ Luxe, calme et volupté’ (order and beauty/ abundance, calm and sensuous delight), subsequently exploded in glittering piano cascades, voice and accompaniment luminous and impassioned.

Connolly opened the second half of the recital with ‘Élégie’ and ‘Extase’ (Rapture), both of which have a Wagnerian flavour. The boldness and colour of Martineau’s accompaniment brought depth of character to the former, while the latter was particularly exquisite, a delicate unfolding of profound emotion. ‘Lamento’, another Gautier setting and dedicated to Fauré, possessed a charming, easy grace; here, Connolly made much of the words, sensitive to Duparc’s sometimes unusual verbal emphases. The mezzo soprano’s gorgeous lower register brought dramatic intensity to ‘Testament’, overcoming the flimsiness of Armand Silvestre’s text.

Unfortunately, baritone Hank Neven could not quite match Connolly’s refinement of technique or interpretation, finding it a challenge to capture Duparc’s expressive register — with its fusion of raw passion and elegant finesse — or the mélodie’s majestic sweep. While the dying final line of ‘Soupir’ (Sigh) was wonderfully tender, the weaknesses in Neven’s pronunciation marred the overall effect, for the expressive ambience depends considerably upon the French-specific features such as elision. ‘Sérénade’ was less tentative, the melodic arcs more robust, but as in ‘Le galop’, with its agitated pounding accompaniment and vigorous vocal line, it all felt a little heavy-handed, and there were some problems with intonation, particularly at the top.

Neven seemed more comfortable with the bold forthrightness of ‘La vague et la cloche’ (The wave and the bell); the low unison of voice and accompaniment — ‘Puis, tout changea … la mer et sa noire mêlée/ Sombrèrent’ (Then everything changed. The sea and its black tumult subsided’) — was chillingly ominous, and above Martineau’s tolling ostinato, the baritone assumed a convincing declamatory mode. And, in the second half ‘Sérénade’ florentine’ and ‘Phidylé’ were also more successful, the former especially lyrical and stylish, its gentle sentiments far from the violence and suffering of many of the other songs.

‘Phidylé’ is perhaps Duparc’s greatest song, and Neven and Martineau’s wonderfully unhurried gradation was enchanting, the piano’s tranquil postlude particularly beautiful. The first half of the evening had ending with Duparc’s rarely sung duet, ‘La fuite’ (Escape), providing an opportunity for the singers to tap their operatic vein; but Neven closed the recital alone, with a sensitive rendition of the composer’s final song, ‘La vie antérieure’ (A previous life), quietly capturing Baudelaire’s yearning and nostalgia.

This was an evening of great interest and delight. The performers consummately confirmed Duparc’s own description of his songs: ‘they come from the heart and speak to the heart’.

Claire Seymour

Performers and programme:

Sarah Connolly, mezzo soprano; Hank Neven, baritone; Malcolm Martineau, piano. Wigmore Hall, London, Wednesday 23rd April 2014.

Duparc: ‘Chanson Triste’, ‘Soupir’, ‘Romance de Mignon’, ‘Sérénade’, ‘Le galop’, ‘Au pays où se fait la guerre’, ‘L’invitation au voyage’, ‘La vague et la cloche’, ‘La fuite’, ‘Élégie’, ‘Extase’, ‘Le manoir de Rosemonde’, ‘Sérénade’ florentine’, ‘Phidylé’, ‘Lamento’, ‘Testament’, ‘La vie antérieure’.

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