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Marie-Nicole Lemieux [Photo by Manuel Cohen]
02 Mar 2015

Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Wigmore Hall

Commenting on her recent, highly acclaimed CD release of late-nineteenth-century song, Chansons Perpétuelles (Naive: V5355), Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux remarked ‘it’s that intimate side that interests me … I wanted to emphasise the genuinely embodied, physical side of the sensuality [in Fauré]’.

Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Wigmore Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Marie-Nicole Lemieux [Photo by Manuel Cohen]


This recital of French mélodies with accompanist Roger Vignoles — which comprised some material from this recording alongside other Gallic chansons — was certainly sensuous and heady, but the soft languor of Fauré, Lekeu and Hahn was balanced by the wit of Charles Koechlin and the poignancy of Duparc.


The gratifying lyricism of Fauré’s Cinq melodies ‘de Venise’ made an engaging opening, and allowed Lemieux to demonstrate her secure technique, the extraordinary range of her tonal palette and the wide compass of her voice, which she can extend down to a full contralto and up to blooming mezzo heights, passing through the registers smoothly and evenly. A native of Québec, Lemieux’s diction was, unsurprisingly, idiomatic. But, Fauré’s settings often prioritise the musical line above the prosody, resulting in occasional misplaced accents and emphasis, and Lemieux was skilful in highlighting textual details and drawing the listener into the song.

Thus, in ‘Mandoline’ the curving melisma with which the composer characterises the serenaders’ ‘tender’ songs was beautifully shaped. And, describing the fair listeners with ‘Leurs longue robes à queues,/ Leur élégance, leur joie/ Et leurs molles ombres bleues’ (their long trailing gowns, their elegance, their joy, and their soft blue shadows), the contralto adopted a breathy conspiratorial tone which contrasted with the bright playfulness of the opening portrait of the lovers exchanging ‘sweet nothings’. This teasing mood had been established by Roger Vignoles’ chirpy, staccato introductory bars and Vignoles’ accompaniments were supportive and attentive throughout, adding splashes of colour and interest — such as the running semi-quavers which ‘shiver’ like the breeze in ‘Mandoline’.

‘En sourdine’ (Muted) was more dreamy, Vignoles’ wave-like arpeggios and Lemieux’s dark tone conjuring the hazy headiness of the calm twilight. Lemieux’s superb control of dynamic extremes was demonstrated at the end of the song, her voice ringing passionately yet forebodingly as evening fell, but fading into sweet softness for the closing consolation, ‘Le rossignol chantera’ (the nightingale will sing). There were flashes of vocal power in ‘Green’, too, judiciously enriching the musical line, and particularly impressive was the way Vignoles used the semi-quaver movement in the inner voices both to colour the piano’s repeating quavers and engage with the voice.

A similar sense of unity was achieved at the opening of ‘C’est l’extase’ (It is rapture), the piano’s rising motif sparkling deliciously to conclude the singer’s slow opening line, ‘C’est l’extase langoureuse’ (It is languorous rapture). In this song, Lemieux moved fluently from high to low and back again, the voice even and lovely across the registers. The highlight of the Fauré songs was ‘A Clymène’: the lucid gentility of the opening captured the mesmerising mystery of Verlaine’s poetry, the moments of power evoked the intoxicating richness of the beloved’s ‘rare scent’, while the floating beauty of the final line, ‘Ainsi soit-il!’, supported by Vignoles quiet, upwards-sweeping triplets, confirmed the lover’s submission to his desire.

Guillaume Lekeu’s settings of his own texts, ‘Trois Poèmes’, reveal the influence of the composer’s worshipful admiration for his teacher, César Franck. The sobriety of ‘Sur une tombe’ (On a tomb) was established by the quiet melancholy of the piano’s opening phrase and the gravity was sustained by the composure and precision — rhythmic, dynamic — of the expressive vocal line. The clouds and shadows were lifted by the clear textures of Vignoles’ insouciant introduction to ‘Ronde’ (The dance), and in this song Lemieux demonstrated the easy flexibility of her voice, most especially in the declamatory second stanza with its temporal ebbs, flows and elongations which mimic ‘Les murmures d’amour de ce beau soir d’été’ (love murmuring on this beautiful summer evening). At times she employed a full vibrato to intensify a note or phrase, most effectively in the final stanza, the voice shimmering glossily through the translucent moonlight painted by Vignoles high, crystalline line. In ‘Nocturne’ Lemieux’s vocal line unfolded sweetly and mellifluously above the piano’s busy accompaniment.

The suspended, rocking chords which open ‘Offrande’ (Offering) by Reynaldo Hahn transported us to a world far removed from Fauré’s ‘Green’, which sets the same Verlaine text — and reminded us of the predilection for the exotic and oriental in late-nineteenth-century France. Lemieux’s melody was wonderfully focused and well-shaped, particularly in the final stanza, ‘Sur votre jeune sein laissez rouler ma tête’ (On your young breast let me cradle my head); and the delicacy of Vignoles’ placing of the oscillating chords, and of the low bass G which finally intimates resolution, was incredibly moving. ‘L’heure exquise’ (Exquisite hour) sparkled tremulously, with Lemieux once again injecting a dash of the moon’s precious gleam. ‘Fêtes galantes’ offered another opportunity to compare Hahn’s approach to text setting with that of Fauré in ‘Mandoline’. Here, the piano’s rippling chords and high right-hand circling motif created a sense of the serenaders’ festive excitement, and this was enhanced by Lemieux’s elegant execution of the extravagant, ornamented leaps which depict the listeners’ luxurious attire.

The tranquillity of the opening of ‘D’une prison’ (From a prison) — written by Verlaine when he was imprisoned in Brussels after his attack on his lover Arthur Rimbaud in 1873 — created deep pathos, Vignoles’ dark bass line and superb pedalling creating momentum and direction. The poet-speaker’s rhetorical cry ,‘Mon Dieu, mon Dieu, la vie est là’ (My God, my God, life is there), was penetrating but still restrained and controlled, falling to a low monotonal murmur reflecting the peace of the world outside the prison walls. The piano’s eloquent rising flourish initiated the self-reflections and recriminations of the final verse. This was indeed a probing and insightful interpretation by the performers.

If we returned after the interval expecting more of the same — one danger of such a programme might be a lack of variety — five songs by Charles Koechlin quickly rectified any potential misconception. In ‘Menuet’ Vignoles’ understated pastiche dance seemed indifferent to the singer’s lamentations, until the final verse when Lemieux joined with the piano to dramatically exclaim her distress, ‘Ah! Comme vous broyez les coeurs’ (Ah! How you break hearts). The piano’s quiet ripples at the start of ‘Si tu le veux’ (If you so desire) created a propelling animation. And, Lemieux balanced tenderness and passion, conveying both the purity and sensuality of the poet-speaker’s desire, most seductively in the port de voix — a sweeping octave fall — which joins the image of the beloved, dishevelled by the wind, to the final line: ‘Si tu le veux, ô mon amour.’

Three songs from Sept Rondels Op.8 completed the Koechlin sequence. ‘La pêche’ (Fishing) moved persuasively between lightly articulated episodes, conveying the fisherman’s joy in his work, and surprisingly statuesque passages, with deliberately placed accents, which conjured both broad vistas and the abundant weight of the fisherman’s catch. The asymmetries of ‘La lune’ perfectly embodied the capriciousness of the moon with her frivolous ways. The piano’s trembling glissandi blew like a cold, dry gust of wintery air through ‘L’Hiver’, the monotone recitation and bare fifths in the left hand conveying the unalleviated uniformity of the snow-covered Bois de Boulogne.

It was a delight to hear these seldom performed songs by Hahn, Lekeu and Koechlin, but there was familiar fare on offer too, and Debussy’s Fêtes galantes Book II followed. Lemieux made much of the text in ‘Les ingénus’, her low voice silky and enticing. The gradual deceleration was well controlled and the fading of the evening light in the third stanza was enigmatic and magical; Vignoles’ delicate grace notes and ebbing augmented triads lent an air of strangeness to the final image of the lovers whose startled souls tremble eternally at the remembrance of the pretty girls’ dreamy ‘fair-seeming words’. In ‘La faun’ Lemieux unleashed all the smoky mystery of her full contralto colour while Vignoles’ distant low fifths, oscillating rhythmically, conjured the mercurial faun’s laughter and twirling dance. ‘Colloque sentimental’ (Lovers’ dialogue) was profoundly moving and the performers assailed the interpretive challenges superbly. Lemieux’s melody was emotive and expressive above the sparse accompaniment, yet details were never exaggerated and the tone was even and controlled. Her breath-control and phrasing were excellent, the syllabic setting never interfering with the flow of the vocal line. Even at the bottom of her range, the singer’s voice spoke clearly and truly, and the three ‘voices’ in the text were clearly distinguished.

Four songs by Henri Duparc concluded the recital. In ‘Invitation au voyage’ there was a captivating, sudden change at the moment when the lover imagines the destined place, ‘Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté,/ Luxe, calme et volupté’ (There — nothing but order and beauty dwell, abundance, calm and delight), as the piano’s rapid semiquavers gave way to quiet, expansive chords, shimmering like a mirage, the simplicity of the vocal line evoking wonder and hope. The syncopated fluidity of the piano’s right hand line in ‘Sérénade florentine’ suggested the inscrutability of the night sky, giving way to increasing definition in the closing passages as the star assumes metaphoric presence, alighting on the sleeping beloved like a kiss, a white treasure which embodies their love. ‘Phidylé’ pulsed with controlled passion, the slow steady crotchets of the accompaniment evolving into triplets, then semiquavers, ever more invigorated as the performers created a compelling urgency. Most spell-binding of all was ‘La vie antérieure’ (A previous life). Lemieux’s tone was truly stunning in the solemn opening stanza, as Baudelaire’s poet-speaker describes his former life beneath vast colonnades that look in the evening light, like ‘grottes basaltiques’ (basalt caves). The poetic images were wonderfully captured in sound: hypnotic swaying cross-rhythms, driving forward, revealed ‘Les houles, en roulant les images de cieux’ (The sea-swells, mingling with the mirrored skies); grandiose and impassioned pounding quavers depicted ‘des esclave nus, tout imprégnés d’odeurs’ (naked slaves all drenched in perfume).

Reading these Parnassian poets, one might be tempted to concur with Fauré’s view that ‘their form, so elegant, pretty, and sonorous, resides entirely in the word — and because the word does not hide a single true thought … [the] verse is too full, too rich, too complete for music to be effectively adapted to it’. But, Lemieux and Vignoles made these settings endlessly fascinating and absorbing.

Claire Seymour


Gabriel Fauré — Cinq mélodies ‘de Venise’ Op. 58; Guillaume Lekeu —Trois Poèmes; Reynaldo Hahn —‘Offrande’, ‘D'une prison’, ‘L'Heure Exquise’, ‘Fêtes galantes’; Charles Koechlin — ‘Menuet’ and ‘Si tu le veux’ (from 5 mélodies Op.5), ‘La pêche’, ‘La lune’, ‘L’hiver’ (from 7 rondels Op. 8); Claude Debussy — Fêtes galantes Book II; Henri Duparc — ‘L'invitation au voyage’, ‘La vie antérieure ‘, ‘Sérénade florentine’, Phidylé

Marie-Nicole Lemieux contralto, Roger Vignoles piano. Wigmore Hall, London, Friday, 27 February 2015.

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