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Reviews

<em>Remembering Debussy</em>: Claire Booth (soprano) and Susan Bickley (mezzo-soprano) at the Purcell Room
16 May 2018

Remembering Debussy

This concert might have been re-titled Remembrance of Musical Times Past: the time, that is, when French song, nurtured in the Proustian Parisian salons, began to gain a foothold in public concert halls. But, the madeleine didn’t quite work its magic on this occasion.

Remembering Debussy: Claire Booth (soprano) and Susan Bickley (mezzo-soprano) at the Purcell Room

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Claire Booth

Photo credit: Sven Arnstein

 

At the heart of the programme lay Claude Debussy’s Cinq Poèmes de Baudelaire (1889) and Jonathan Dove’s Letters from Claude. The latter was commissioned by the Richard Thomas Foundation at the invitation of pianist Andrew Matthews-Owen and premiered here by soprano Claire Booth and mezzo-soprano Susan Bickley.

Debussy was a prodigious letter-writer, and indeed a discerning and prolific writer, critic and journalist per se. Nine volumes of his correspondence were published between 1927 and 1958, and more than 1500 of his letters survive. Among his correspondents were three women whom he bound together in amorous knots, not of their will. Gabrielle Dupont was a professional mistress from the lower echelons of the grandes horizontales society of the 1890s; Debussy abandoned her for Rosalie (Lilly) Texier, whom he married in 1899 (pressuring her into wedlock by threatening suicide); she shot herself in the stomach when Debussy subsequently left her for one of his rich pupils, Emma Barduc, with whom he had his only child.

Jonathan Dove’s Letters from Claude, as the composer himself explains, takes text from sixteen of Debussy’s letters and fragments: ‘I imagine that, perhaps after Debussy’s death, Lilly and Emma just happen to be reading some of his letters in their different homes at the same moment. There memories are, of course, full of his music, and so the piano accompaniments are each prompted by a chord or phrase from piano pieces Debussy wrote around this time - Suite Bergamasque (1890-1905), and Estampes (1903) - along with the early Danse (1890).’

The fragments which form this 12-minute whole run segue, and there was an urgency as we moved from mezzo-soprano Susan Bickley’s recitation of the composer’s insouciant instruction to Lilly to ‘put on your pink petticoat and your black hat and [to] come and say hello to me next Sunday’ to his ardent avowal of passions ‘secretly burning’ and impatience for ‘your mouth, your body’, just three days later. The charm of the fragment in which the composer reflects on the ‘Lovely Lili’s’ whereabouts and movements - she is probably lending ‘the slender grace of her body to various gorgeous dresses’ - was embodied by a beautiful translucent piano accompaniment.

Susan Bickley_11_credit Julie Kim.jpgSusan Bickley. Photo credit: Julie Kim.

Soprano Claire Booth revisited Emma Bardac’s memories, the composer’s abstract images of fragrances and flowers finding shape in trickling piano figures, and his request that Lilly should pay him a visit, even though the rain falls heavily, characterised by a circular motif of pattering wetness.

Dove conveys the complexity of torn and tattered allegiances by overlapping the voices: this is evocative in a general way, though it inevitably obscures the texts, which were also sometimes lost to an overly loud - sounds of the ‘mechanism’ were occasionally intrusive - accompaniment from Matthews-Owen. For example, Bickley’s recount of Debussy’s letter to Lilly of 23rd May 1899 - ‘I love you, I love you … I can only think of your return, and of the three whole days which you will grant me. And such a delicious ache it gives me. God how I love you.’ - was overpowered by the piano’s growing animation. Dove’s settings also lack variety - perhaps suggestive of Debussy’s emotional limitations? - as he frequently relies upon ponderous, pounding bass notes, which often descend (à la Delius or Lloyd Webber), languorously, by step, above which ostinatos or fragments in the middle and upper registers float.

By contrast, the use of unaccompanied voices in some of the later fragments was effective and the directness of the homophonic utterances suggested shared experiences. But, given the wealth of text from which to choose, one wonders what Dove hoped to capture in such oblique fragments drawn from two letters to Emma, of June 1904: ‘Hello Madame Bardac?’ and ‘Yes…! Yes! Yes!’ That said, the climax of the closing episodes was well-shaped; recalling Debussy’s missive of 24th December 1916 to Emma, Booth made the carolling bells shine - ‘Noël! Noël!’ - and the ambience was sustained in the right-hand piano echoes above low pedals in the bass. Bickley’s cold declamation of Debussy’s rejection of Lilly, ‘I have to tell you that nothing on earth would compel me to meet up with people with whom I have broken off all relations’, fell low and lingered chillingly.

Booth’s performance of Debussy’s Cinq poèmes de Baudelaire, which preceded the interval, was less convincing. There was certainly passion and extase in the vocal line - a real gloss at the top, as at the close of ‘Le balcon’, with its images of countless vows, perfumes and kisses - as well as a contrasting coolness at times; and, Matthews-Owen negotiated the motivic and textural complexities of the piano-writing with accomplishment. But, Booth did not always control the contours immaculately - rising lines had a tendency to break off too abruptly - and the text was often indistinguishable; given that these songs embody the symbolists’ aesthetic and desire to blur the distinction between poetry and music, this was problematic.

The central song, ‘Le jet d’eau’, revealed Booth’s rich lower register, and here something of the tenor of the language and mélodie was struck. There was a strong sense of the waves of sensory experience offered by the bounding of the bold soul towards the ‘vast enchanted skies’, and of the trembling magic of the ‘Moon, sonorous water, blessed night’ which reflect the poet’s love. The piano’s rhythmic complexities in ‘Recueillement’ (Meditative calm) were stirring and Booth infused the narrow compass of the vocal line with life, the energy subdued but always present, culminating in a final melodic plunge which carried us downwards with the ‘step of the gentle Night’.

Five songs by Gabriel Fauré brought the best from the two singers. Booth’s rendition of ‘Clair de lune’ was fluent and fresh, and ‘Au bord de l’eau’ had a lovely, heady, rolling flow. The fairly brisk tempo of ‘Après un rêve’ ensured directness and eschewed indulgent sentimentality. Susan Bickley communicated powerfully in ‘Les rose d’Ispahan’, and there was a real sense of the hypnotic arc of each stanza, while Bickley’s beguiling lower register was put to good effect in ‘Nocturne’, which had a delicious murmuring quality conveying mystery, as the night ‘half opens its blue jewel caskets’.

Bickley and Matthews-Owen framed the recital with songs by Erik Satie. In the opening ‘Élégie’, Bickley made a good attempt to capture the distance which comes from loss - and Satie’s characteristic abstraction - but the descending scales of the song and the awkward intervallic contrasts which pit pure fifths/fourths against tritones, with little harmonic or textural support from piano, made this a difficult song with which to open the recital. But, while Bickley’s intonation took a little while to settle, there was a sensitive diminishment at the close, ‘Le seul remède sur la terre/À ma misère/Est de pleurer’ (The only remedy on Earth for my misery is to cry) slipping away like a falling tear.

The piano hopped with the jerky spring of a frog at start of ‘La statue de bronze’ and Bickley used the low lying declamatory passages to convey a wry wit. In contrast, ‘Daphénéo’ was tranquil, as the gentle vocal survey of just three or four notes established a stillness and lack of sentimentality.

While occasionally the low voice was lost amid the density of the piano’s pounding triplet quavers, Bickley enjoyed the deadpan parody (of Gounod) in ‘Le chapelier’ (The mad hatter), where the lunacy of the mad hatter’s attempts to fix his languid wristwatch - oiling it with butter, clogging the gears with bread-crumbs and plunging it in cups of tea - were all to no avail, consequence or import, as the Dada-esque throw-away conclusion confirmed.

The fun was resumed at the close in the sardonic sparseness of ‘Air du poète’ and the stylish insouciance of ‘Je te veux’ which took us from the salon to the cabaret. In between there were some ‘Vexations’ - fortunately only five of 840 that Satie ‘instructed’.

Claire Seymour

Claire Booth soprano
Susan Bickley mezzo-soprano
Andrew Matthews-Owen piano

Satie - ‘Elégie’ from Trois Melodies (1886); Trois Mélodies (1916)
Debussy - Cinq Poèmes de Baudelaire (1889)
Jonathan Dove - Letters to Claude, for soprano, mezzo-soprano & piano (World premiere)
Fauré - ‘Clair de lune’ Op.46 No.2, ‘Au bord de eau’, Op.8 No.1, ‘Après un rêve’ Op.17 No.1, ‘Les roses d’Ispahan Op.39 No.4, ‘Fleur jetée’ Op.39 No.2, ‘Nocturne’ Op.43 No.2
Satie - ‘Air du poète’, ‘Vexations’, ‘Je te veux’

Purcell Room, Southbank Centre, London; Tuesday 15th May 2018.

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