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Performances

Stéphane Degout [Photo © Jean-Baptiste Millot]
10 Jun 2018

Stéphane Degout and Simon Lepper

Another wonderful Wigmore song recital: this time from Stéphane Degout – recently shining in George Benjamin's new operatic masterpiece,

Stéphane Degout and Simon Lepper

A review by Mark Berry

Above: Stéphane Degout [Photo © Jean-Baptiste Millot]

 

Lessons in Love and Violence - and Simon Lepper. We began with Fauré, whose songs alas often leave me cold. (I have little doubt the fault lies with me.) Such was not the case here, however. Perhaps I have at long last found the key to the door: I do hope so. That Degout was fully in command of an often elusive - and not only to non-Francophone artists - idiom might have been expected; that I was put in mind of the mastery, rather than any specifics, of a Gérard Souzay had me realise from the off that these would be no ordinary performances. Lepper, in the opening Aurore, captured just the right sort of 'floating' tone to the piano part too, the composer's harmonic subtleties suspended. Surpassing elegance here and in the following Poème d'un jour did not preclude death (of the stars) at the close but rather proved its agent. Turbulence and torment naturally marked Toujours - the sequence was splendidly programmed - albeit within a similar yet far from identical framework. Lepper was permitted in its final stanza a hint at Lisztian pianism, which he gratefully took - and communicated. Fauré sometimes puts me in mind of Elgar; for me, it was an almost Elgarian dignity that characterised the prelude to Adieu, even though chronologically that was the wrong way around. Automne offered a nice link to Brahms, the music darkening, the crucial role for the piano bass line brought out without exaggeration. A perfect sadness in its final line - Où jadis sourit ma jeunesse! - sounded not un-Wagnerian. Is it fanciful to hope for an Amfortas some day…?

There is certainly no problem with Degout's German: clean and meaningful as his musical line. The dark simplicity of Brahms's O kühler Wald mirrored that forest itself. Darker shadows ('dunklere Schatten') were sought and found in Die Mainacht, providing relief for its premonition of the soprano solo movement in Ein deutsches Requiem. Brief, unmistakeably late, inner tumult characterised Auf dem Kirchhofe, even before its chorale reference: 'O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden'. It is a different, yet not entirely unrelated Einsamkeit - and certainly was in performance - that we heard in Feldeinsamkeit. As ever, Degout's reserves of breath seemed endless. Alte Liebe seemed almost to reminisce about Schubert, retaining consciousness that reminiscence was now all that was possible: old love indeed. Darker, still more Romantic, Nicht mehr zu dir zu gehen seemed almost - whether I am sentimentalising or not - to speak of Brahms's passion for Clara Schumann. And it was a Brahmsian echo of Schubert's Winterreise crow that seemed to hover over Willst du, dass ich geh? It may have ended in the major mode, but it was hardly affirmative. Brahms's 'lateness' spoke for itself, here and elsewhere; it neither needed nor received underlining.

Schumann (Robert, that is) had the second half: his Kerner Lieder, op.35. It was a stormy night indeed with which the set opened, thus picking up tendencies from both Fauré and Brahms, yet also turned us towards new paths - or Neue Bahnen, as someone, I believe, once put it. The ambiguity of its close seemed almost to open a new door for us; there was certainly no reason not to follow its hint. An illumined quality to the following 'Stirb, Lieb' und Freud'!' proved spellbinding, never quite permitting one to put a finger on the source of that light: artistry indeed. Muffled bells sounded not only on the line in question ('Alsbald der Glocken dumpfer Klang'), but subliminally throughout, prefiguring in context the ambiguous swagger of 'Wanderlied'. Schumannesque sadness was captured to a tee in 'Erstes Grün', nowhere more so than in Lepper's piano rubato, although not only there. A forest path took on metaphysical meaning too in 'Sehnsucht nach der Waldgesang', whilst 'Auf das trinkglas eines verstorbenes Freundes' seemed already to revisit past joys: the song of travel heard, as it were, through the aural lens of 'Erstes Grün', prior to the magical moonlight of the final stanza. It seemed as if the question of 'Frage' was posed without ever having arisen. Be that as it may, 'Stille Tränen' quite rightly offered the emotional climax. Relief and repose of a sort, in 'Wer machte dich so krank', again hinted at a hushed awe not so distant from Parsifal, an impression of holy ground furthered in 'Alte Laute'. If only an angel might have woken the narrator ('Und aus dem Traum, dem bangen, weckt mich ein Engel nur'), what if that angel were actually singing? Such perhaps was the thought that made the appreciative audience so reluctant to break rapt silence at its close.

Brahms's Lerchengesang, op.70 no.2, seemed very much to come 'after' Schumann's set. Degout and Lepper offered it as an encore that was beautiful in the very best sense: rare, painful, the opening of a new path to something else, something deeper.

Mark Berry


Programme:

Fauré: Aurore , op.39 no.1; Poème d'un jour, op.2; Automne, op.18 no.3; Brahms: O kühler Wald, op.72 no.3;Die Mainacht, op.43 no.2; Auf dem Kirchhofe, op.105 no.4;Feldeinsamkeit, op.86 no.2; Alte Liebe, op.72 no.1;Nicht mehr zu dir zu gehen, op.32 no.2;Willst du, dass ich geh? op.71 no.4; Schumann: Kerner Lieder, op.35. Wigmore Hall, London, Tuesday 5 June 2018.

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