If Renee Fleming's voice is "creamy", Susan's Graham would be pure golden honey, scented with summer blossom. Graham sings with personality and wit, making her songs come alive with personal feeling. Like William Christie and others, she's American but France is her artistic home. She understands the clarity of French song, and adds robust warmth and spirit. Had Ravel, Debussy and Poulenc lived to hear this voice! Her recordings of Charles Ives and Ned Rorem show that her style works for American song, too. But she's almost without par in French chanson.
So this chamber Prom at Cadogan Hall had song fans drooling with delight. Most of the audience know her masterpieces, like the amazing Reynaldo Hahn songs, and Berlioz, Massenet and Bizet, so she chose a good mix of other French song composers for variety.
There were great favorites, like Le Paon, from Ravel's Histoires naturelles, animated by Graham's exuberant good humour. A peacock gets jilted by his bride, but he's really more interested in flashing his plumage. When he sings, it's a hideous squawk! Ravel sends up the pompous fool, Graham softens the satire with charm.
Less famous, but much loved, Emmanuel Chabrier's Les cigales. "Les cigales, les cigalons chantent mieux que des violins!" But do they? Malcolm Martineau played the jerky, jumpy piano part with such charm, you really could feel the buzz in the cicada chorus. It was great, too, to hear Caplet, Roussel and Honneger's miniatures.
Two Susan Graham specialities, which no one does quite like she can. Manuel Rosenthal's La souris de l'Angleterre comes from a set of 12, the Chansons de Monsieur Bleu. Some of them sit a little too low for soprano, but they're a wonderful group and should be programmed more often. I've heard Graham bring down the house at the Wigmore Hall with Poulenc's La dame de Monte-Carlo, swaying her hips and prancing with a feather boa. I laughed so much, I had tears in my eyes. Graham is a natural actress, which makes her formidable in opera.
But Graham in a pensive mood is even more beautiful. For an encore she sang Reynaldo Hahn's exquisite A Chloris. Graham brought Hahn into the mainstream. Her recording, with Roger Vignoles, is the benchmark. At this Prom, she was freer and lighter than on the CD. Listen to the clip below. It also links to a version by the dishy Phillippe Jaroussky who makes the song sound gloriously baroque but Hahn, who died in 1947, was only playing at being baroque.