23 June 2009

Un Frisson Franco-Belge

Susan Graham, in a publicity portrait by Dario Acosta

In perhaps the most famous scene in the film This Is Spinal Tap (okay, apart from “Stonehenge”), Christopher Guest, as Nigel Tufnel, explains that the band has had all of its amps modified “to go up to eleven,” for those moments that require “that extra push” of intensity. It’s been my good fortune to witness classical singers who, without artificial amplification of any kind, can deliver a performance that is good, even great — when something else kicks in. Extra power, heightened sensitivity, sublime expression. Suddenly, they’ve gone to eleven.

Susan Graham went to eleven, and quite possibly twelve, at the end of her recital Sunday night in Brussels’ historic De Munt/La Monnaie theater. Following a program of French mélodies that drew on their recent recording, Un Frisson Français, Susan and pianist Malcolm Martineau offered as their only encore Reynaldo Hahn’s “À Chloris.”

She’s been singing this song for several years, and recorded it three times. And yet, though her interpretation was sublime from the get-go, she hasn’t stopped exploring the music. Each time she sings it again, I’ve made fresh discoveries, almost as if hearing it for the first time.

On Sunday night, her approach seemed more intimate than ever, almost conversational, and she began by leaning over the piano to look at Martineau, before turning to face us in the closing verses. Since intimacy is one of her special gifts — an ability to make a listener feel she’s singing for him alone, as if nothing on earth exists but two people and a song — she took “À Chloris” where few if any other singers could go. Scale back too far, and another singer would lose the audience. Not Susan.* So masterful was her control that you weren’t even aware of the sheer power she wielded: you never had to strain to hear her, yet you couldn’t help but lean forward.

And so, for the first time, I cried upon listening to “À Chloris.” After the recital, Susan told me that she had come close to crying, as well.

The Theater De Munt/La Monnaie, Brussels
While desperately seeking Susan after the show,
I got to run all over this place: backstage, onstage, out front....
Photo from Wikipedia by Luc Viatour

There were so many questions I wanted to ask her — and Malcolm Martineau, too, for that matter — about how they had arrived at this particular program, about how their interpretations had evolved. Malcolm told me that, though each composer in question was represented by a single selection, in a program spanning a century of music, he and Susan had given particular attention to crafting sets according to themes (nature, descriptions of animals, love songs). They also created an internal architecture, so that each number built on the one before it, and each set contributed to an overall arc. That said, it was a lot for a listener to absorb, and I was grateful when the audience succumbed to the temptation to applaud in the middle of a set, especially after humorous numbers. I didn’t want to see Susan and Malcolm lose their concentration, yet I sometimes needed to shift gears a little bit before listening to the next mélodie.

Was it easier or more difficult to perform these selections for an audience who understood the lyrics? Both, Susan said. On the one hand, she could play with the words more, and use subtler gestures to underline her point. Yet the possibility of making a mistake made her nervous. That’s never a concern, she says, when she’s singing Italian in Italy, or German in Austria, or English in the States.

French repertoire is a great fit for her (to state the obvious), giving as it does full vent to her wit, her sensuality, her passions. I was especially happy to share with an audience the fun of her comic numbers, such as Ravel’s “Le Paon,” which was downright hilarious, and more fun in a room crowded with strangers who were laughing, too. Susan knows just how far to push the jokes, and having heard too many recitalists who kill jokes by overplaying them, I admire her restraint and her flawless timing.

She explored dramatic territory, too, with an exuberant account of Bizet’s “Chanson d’Avril,” a heartbreaking “Au pays où se fait la guerre” (by Duparc), and a tour-de-force “La Dame de Monte-Carlo” (by Poulenc), which is really a seven-minute, five-act opera for solo vocalist. A good recitalist must be a great storyteller, and Susan and Malcolm easily surpassed that standard with every number.

Pianist Malcolm Martineau

I was seated in the second balcony, with a good view of Malcolm’s hands on the keyboard, and a gratifying reminder of the size of Susan’s voice. So often she makes me feel as if she’s whispering in my ear (and especially when I’m listening with a headset to her CDs), but she really does know how to fill the house with her voice. Even the softest, floated high notes hit their mark. They’re like moonlight that gives warmth.

On the way to Brussels, I’d wavered. The trip seemed so impromptu, so self-indulgent — hadn’t I just gone to hear Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet in Bordeaux? Hadn’t I just heard Joyce DiDonato in New York? Am I not dying to hear Ana María Martínez in Rusalka and Joyce Castle in The Consul this summer? How much music do I really need?

The answer is — a lot. The past several weeks have been a bit rough for me.

Beyond that, I tell myself, I’d be a fool not to take advantage of the opportunity to hear artists of this caliber in live performance. They’re worth going the extra mile — especially because they’re such cool people offstage, too. And until such time as I become the reincarnation of Ludwig II of Bavaria, it’s not as if I can invite them to my house to sing whenever I please. (The fear, though, is that I’ll turn into a smaller-scale Ludwig, like the hero of Satyajit Ray’s The Music Room, who also bankrupts himself with his hunger for art — then dies of it!)

The need for rationalization began to melt away as soon as Susan started to sing, and by the time we got to “À Chloris,” I knew why I’d come. She went to eleven, and quite possibly twelve — and she took me with her.

*NOTE: One key to Susan’s gift of intimacy, I’ve realized, is her ability to hold the stage. Once you look at her, you can’t look away — whereupon she’s free to do what she likes.

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