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Prom Chamber Music 6: Christiane Karg and Malcolm Martineau at Cadogan Hall
22 Aug 2017

An Invitation to Travel: Christiane Karg and Malcolm Martineau at the Proms

German soprano Christiane Karg invited us to accompany her on a journey during this lunchtime chamber music Prom at Cadogan Hall as she followed the voyages of French composers in Europe and beyond, and their return home.

Prom Chamber Music 6: Christiane Karg and Malcolm Martineau at Cadogan Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Christiane Karg

Photo credit: Gisela Schenker

 

This was Karg’s Proms debut, and many of the songs performed - by Reynaldo Hahn, Charles Koechlin, Maurice Ravel and Francis Poulenc - were receiving their first performance at the Proms, although Karg’s programme is itself quite well-travelled: she’s performed similar programmes at the Wigmore Hall (with Wolfram Rieger in 2014) and in the US in 2016 with her Proms accompanist on this occasion, Malcolm Martineau.

Nothing wrong with that, of course, and familiarity with the repertoire no doubt contributed to the assurance and ease that she displayed, and to the precision and appropriateness of Karg’s interpretative nuances. As she tracked Hahn and Ravel in Greece, Koechlin in Persia and Poulenc in London, Karg offered authentic local flavour without mannerism or cliché, expertly and impressively maintaining a balance between imitation and integrity.

Henri Duparc’s Baudelaire setting, ‘L’invitation au voyage’ (1870), was a beguiling opener. Tempted by Martineau’s palpable lapping waves, Karg’s anticipation of the leisured land of her dreams, clothed by the sun in hyacinth and gold, was both tender and sensuous. She conveyed the submerged passion which adds a frisson to even the song’s quietest phrases, adding a flash of brightness to the image of tear-bright eyes and swelling almost imperceptibly when beckoned by ‘Luxe, calme et volupté’ (luxury, peace and sensuality). Martineau’s left-hand counter-melodies sang enticingly but it was a pity that the delicious diminuendo of the close was spoiled by some disruptive banging from outside the Hall, though this was fortunately short-lived.

Karg never slipped too deeply into languorous waters, using the flinty edge of her soprano to bring immediacy and life to her interpretation of the Seis Canciones Castellanas by Basque composer Jesús Guridi. Guridi studied in Paris, Brussels and Cologne and by the time of his death in Madrid in 1961, at the age of 74, he had composed a wide variety of music much of it derived from Basque themes; these six songs, dating from 1941, are based on Castilian folk melodies. Karg’s Spanish was idiomatic, her ornamentation judicious, and she and Martineau were wonderfully responsive to the wide range of seductive sights, sounds and scents that Gurudi depicts.

‘Allá arriba, en aquella montaña’ (Up there on the mountain) opened dreamily, but ‘¡Sereno!’ (Watchman!) burst into life, the piano’s slithery syncopations evoking the threat posed by the man, fast asleep under his cloak, clutching a silver dagger. The wide distance between low accompaniment and high voice suggested the woman’s over-wrought reaction to the intruder, which Martineau mocked with an abrupt, emphatic final chord which raised a chuckle. The pianist proved a master of Spanish gesture: in ‘Llámale con el pañuelo’ (Call him with your handkerchief), his sparse staccatos punctuated the melismatic coquettishness of Karg’s flirtatious cries to the toreador. In contrast, a cool simplicity characterised ‘No quiero tus avellanas’ (I don’t want your hazelnuts), in which the protagonist rejects her lover’s empty peace offerings. Best of the sequence was the final song, ‘Mañanita de San Juan’ (Early on St John’s Day), in which Karg’s soprano floated dreamily above Martineau’s evocation of the echoing depths of the sea.

Ravel’s Cinq mélodies populaires grecques had plentiful charm. ‘Chanson de la mariée’ (Song of the bride-to-be) was infectiously eager and optimistic, while in ‘Là-bas, vers l’église’ (Down there by the church) the initial tone of mystery was imbued with reverence at the sight of the ‘infinite numbers’ of the ‘bravest people in the world’ buried beside the Church of St Constantine. The rhetoric of ‘Quel galant m’est comparable?’ (What gallant can compare with me?) swaggered conceitedly, Martineau offering a cocky, mischievous play-out which looked ahead to the ‘nonsense’ of the perky ‘Tout gai!’ (So merry), but it was the lovely vocal enrichment of the opening and close of ‘Chanson des cueilleuses de lentisques’ which was most alluring.

A similar inner richness and elegance of phrasing characterised the three songs selected from Reynaldo Hahn’s Études latines in which Karg’s beautifully even legato swept us through Hahn’s settings of poems by Charles-Marie-René Leconte de Lisle, emphasising their delicacy and grace. Inspired by Horace, the poet offers an aesthetic vision of Ancient Greece. Both Karg and Martineau offered detailed nuance: after the clean purity of ‘Lydé’, the lightness of ‘Vile potabis’ blossomed with the pain and pleasure of reminiscence in the concluding vision of the golden vines of the Formian hillside. A pastoral ease infused ‘Tyndaris’, as Martineau’s melody sang seamlessly over harp-like strumming and Karg captured the freshness and sunniness of youthful hopes.

Koechlin set thirteen poems from Tristan Klingsor’s Shéhérazadei, in two sets, and Karg prefaced two of the second Op.84 group (1922-23) with ‘Chanson d’Engaddi’ from the first Op.56 volume (1914-16). In the latter, the vocal ascents sparkled magically. However, the soprano lured us with a range of intoxicating vocal fragrances, and exhibited an impressive ability to glide effortlessly across the song’s wide tessitura, both here and in ‘Le voyage’.

After the headiness of these mélodies, the air was cleared by the playfulness of Poulenc. The composer suggested that his gravestone should announce, ‘Here lies Francis Poulenc, the musician of Apollinaire and Éluard’, and Karg and Martineau ended their recital with four settings of Apollinaire. They whisked us briskly back to the melodic charms of the Parisian musical hall after a sojourn in the dreary countryside (in ‘Voyage à Paris’ from Banalités), then charted the composer’s arrival in his adored ‘Montparnasse’ (the first of the Deux poèmes de Guillaume Apollinaire), before dashing off to ‘Hyde Park’ with its soap-box orators and self-absorbed courting couples, and arriving finally in a smoky hotel room, where Martineau’s harmonies suggested a decadent sleaziness as Karg sang with lazy languor, ‘Je ne veux pas travailler je veux fumer’.

Karg seemed absolutely ‘at home’ in the Cadogan Hall and she related these French composer’s adventures ‘abroad’ with polished artistry. As Martineau whispered at the end of one sequence of songs, bravo!

Claire Seymour

Proms Chamber Music 6: Christiane Karg (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano)

Henri Duparc - L’invitation au voyage; Jesús Guridi -Seis canciones castellanas; Maurice Ravel -Cinq melodies populaires grecques; Reynaldo Hahn - Études latines (‘Lydé’, ‘Vile potabis’, ‘Tyndaris’); Charles Koechlin - Shéhérazade (‘Chanson d'Engaddi’, ‘La chanson d’Ishak de Moussoul’, ‘Le voyage’), Francis Poulenc - Banalités (Voyage à Paris), Deux mélodies de Guillaume Apollinaire (‘Montparnasse’, ‘Hyde Park’), Banalités (Hôtel).

Cadogan Hall, London; Monday 21st August 2017.

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