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<em>Les Salons de Pauline Viardot</em> Sabine Devieilhe (soprano) and Anne Le Bozec (piano) at Wigmore Hall
07 May 2018

Les Salons de Pauline Viardot: Sabine Devieilhe at Wigmore Hall

Always in demand on French and international stages, the French soprano Sabine Devieihle is, fortunately, becoming an increasingly frequent visitor to these shores. Her first appearance at Wigmore Hall was last month’s performance of works by Handel with Emmanuelle Haïm’s Le Concert d’Astrée. This lunchtime recital, reflecting the meetings of music and minds which took place at Parisian salon of the nineteenth-century mezzo-soprano Pauline Viardot (1821-1910), was her solo debut at the venue.

Les Salons de Pauline Viardot Sabine Devieilhe (soprano) and Anne Le Bozec (piano) at Wigmore Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Sabine Devieilhe

Molina Visual

 

It was a pity that the uncharacteristically tropical temperatures which have blessed this holiday weekend probably meant that fewer lovers of lieder grasped the opportunity to enjoy what was a discerning and elegant recital - as the sunshine took precedence over ‘la salon’.

I first encountered Devieilhe - whose initial studies focused on the cello and musicology - when reviewing the DVD of Krzysztof Warlikowski’s production of Handel’s Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno at Aix-en-Provence in 2016, in which Devieilhe took the role of Bellazza. I wrote that she ‘dazzles in Handel’s glittering cascades, uses ornamentation with exquisite expressiveness, and displays an astonishing agility, leaping cleanly to the stratosphere and back with startling ease. At times, Deveilhe is surprisingly fierce, snarling through the upward appoggiaturas, flashing sparks at the top, but in the Part 2 aria in which she comes to her fate-sealing decision to spurn Piacere she exhibits a paradoxical and touching combination of emotional fragility and sincerity which conveys through impressive strength of tone and control of line.’

Not surprisingly, I excitedly anticipated her arrival on the Covent Garden stage as the Queen of the Night in the sixth revival of David McVicar’s 2003 Die Zauberflöte last autumn, and I was not disappointed. This recital was similarly characterised by a balance of composure and intensity, by vocal purity and precision and impassioned expression, with a sustained sensitivity to text. To put it in a way which may seem facile, Devieihle’s gleaming soprano is beguilingly easy to listen to … but the ways in which it seduces those susceptible to vocal beauty are diverse, inventive and masterful. I was also enormously impressed by the lucidity and sensitivity of Anne Le Bozec’s invaluable contribution to an aesthetic which accommodated frissons of colour and fervency with a prevailing self-possession and control.

Daughter of the Spanish tenor Manuel García, sister of esteemed mezzo-soprano Maria Malibran and of baritone Manuel García junior, who is credited with the invention of the first laryngoscope, Pauline Viardot was a leading social and artistic figure of her day: a talented pianist and composer, celebrated singer and mistress of a salon to which venerable artists such as Berlioz and Bizet, Liszt and Rubinstein, as well as new kids on the block including Debussy and Reynaldo Hahn, flocked. After her farewell performance in Paris in April 1863, Pauline and her husband Louis Viardot settled in Baden-Baden, and it was here that she initiated the salon that would attract musicians, composers, artists and writers from across Europe.

Devieilhe’s first sequence of songs focused on the French connection, and she and Le Bozec needed no time to get into their stride. The piano introduction to Berlioz’s ‘Villanelle’ from Les nuits d’ été (1840) was deliciously cogent and clear - lightly articulated quavers were supported by an eloquent bass line, creating a cleansing freshness as the new season drives away the cold winter and the lovers enter the wood to gather lillies-of-the-valley - while Devieilhe’s youthful sweetness acquired frissons of incipient passion as the vocal line rose and fell. The predominant sentiment was one of carefree confidence and burgeoning, yet contained, ardour. The narrative simplicity of La mort d’Ophélie (1848) was immensely touching, against which Le Bozec provided emotional complexity and anguish, blooming richly into the third stanza’s account of Ophelia’s drowning. Dialectical motifs in the piano conveyed the airy ballooning of the young girl’s attire and the eddying force of the water that supports her, as Devieilhe’s increased vocal intensity wrung notes of anguish from Ophelia’s dying song. The close - as Ophelia’s dress dragged her down to the depths - was poignant, infused with sweetness and sadness.

Two songs by Bizet offered character and colour. ‘Pastoral’ (1868) was tenderly bucolic: the gentle siciliano lilt carried us with ‘Colin’ through the valley as he sang to his shepherdess, and Devieihle’s pertly confident replies to his wooing acquired a mischievous esprit. A touch of the ‘exotic’ tinged ‘Adieux de l’hôtesse arabe’ (1866): Le Bozec injected judicious sensuousness into her pulsing, repeating rhythm, avoiding wry parody, while Devieilhe saved the sultriness to the end as the daughter of the desert’s exhortation to the ‘handsome young white traveller’ rang with lingering fervency: ‘Hélas! Adieu! bel étranger! Souviens-toi!’ (Alas! Farewell, fair stranger! Remember!)

Camille Saint-Saëns had a lifelong friendship with Viardot, and it was he who introduced Gabriel Fauré to the Viardot salon in 1872: the latter was later briefly engaged to Pauline’s daughter Marianne and dedicated many songs to members of the family. We heard Fauré’s ‘Au bord de l’eau’, in which the duo created an entrancing lapping lilt to convey the flow of the stream and gliding clouds on the horizon.

The central sequence of songs turned to Germany. I cannot imagine a rendition of Clara Schumann’s ‘Ich stand in dunkeln Träunen’ (I stood in dark dreams) imbued with more simplicity and loveliness. Devieilhe captured the stillness and the stirrings of the rapt moment of reflection, while Le Bozec’s enrichening of the accompaniment conjured the deceptive animation of the portrait which springs mysteriously to life at the end of the first stanza. The final declaration, ‘ich kann nicht’s glauben,/ Dass ich dich verloren hab!’, was an utterly sincere and direct expression of grief: wonderfully but woefully captivating.

I am more used to hearing Robert Schumann’s Myrten Op.25 sung by a tenor voice, but Devieilhe lent a certain purity to the soaring lines depicting the image of the beloved as the ‘heaven … in which I float’ (Mein Himmel du, darein ich schwebe) which was immensely touching. And, if the soprano struggled a little to project some of the lower lying lines here and in the ensuing ‘Der Nussbaum’ (The walnut tree), then the tone was always clean, and the diction excellent. Mendelssohn’s ‘Neue Liebe’ shone with the thrill of wild nights and danger when, in a moonlit wood, sightings of ‘elves’ and forest fairies promise bliss, or death. Le Bozec scurried nimbly, à la Midsummer Night’s Dream, while in the first two stanzas Devieihle blossomed gloriously from intimation to imagined consummation. A momentary halting, in a fearful realisation of the abyss, was pushed aside by a winning brazen confidence at the close.

The final songs carried us to the end of the nineteenth century. Le Bozec’s accompaniment was laden with the aromatic scents and soul of Debussy’s ‘Romance’, as embodied by the ‘divine lilies’ gathered from the garden of a lover’s thoughts, while Devieilhe’s almost fairy-tale purity made me long to hear her sing the role of Mélisande. Reynaldo Hahn’s ‘Le printemps’ sparkled with freshness and happiness.

We were also treated to two songs by Viardot herself; she composed over 200 songs, made admired vocal arrangements of Chopin’s mazurkas, and produced a number of chamber works including a lovely salon operetta, Cinderella. That Viardot, in addition to her vocal talents, was both a fine accompanist, had a talent for musical characterisation and a sense of fun was evident in ‘Haï luli!’ (Willow-waly), the gentle minor-key complaint of anxious waiting giving way to the warmth of consoling self-reassurance as Devieilhe let phrase endings hover and linger with exquisite skill and judgement. Turbulence ensued, with fears of fickleness, and in this song the highs and lows of love and loneliness were superbly plundered by both Viardot and her interpreters. In contrast, ‘Aime-moi’ was replete with confident teasing.

My only small regret was that this was rather a short recital. With the sequence of songs over in less than 45 minutes, the audience’s vociferous appreciation drew a welcome encore - Debussy’s ‘Apparation’, a setting of Mallarmé, in which Devieihle’s soprano soared with crystalline lustre.

But, we wanted more! Viardot made a memorable impact on the composers and artists of her day; she was a singer of remarkable vocal, musical and dramatic range and depth, qualities to which Devieihle can rightly aspire.

This recital was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3.

Claire Seymour

Sabine Devieilhe (soprano), Anne Le Bozec (piano)

Berlioz - ‘Villanelle’ from Les nuits d’été; Pauline Viardot - ‘Hai luli!’; Bizet - ‘Pastorale’ Op.21 No.9; Fauré - ‘Au bord de l’eau’ Op.8 No.1; Berlioz - La mort d’Ophélie; Bizet - ‘Adieux de l’hôtesse arabe’ Op. 21 No.4; Clara Schumann - ‘Ich stand in dunklen Träumen’ Op.13 No.1; Schumann - Myrthen Op.25 (No.1 ‘Widmung’, No.3 ‘Der Nussbaum’); Mendelssohn - ‘Neue Liebe’ Op.19a No.4; Pauline Viardot - ‘Aime-moi’; Debussy - ‘Romance’; Hahn - ‘Le printemps’

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 7th May 2018

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