Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Stéphane Degout Wigmore Hall

Wonderful Wigmore Hall recital with Stéphane Degout and Simon Lepper. Degout is one of the great names in French repertoire and in French baroque in particular. He sang Thésée  in the Glyndebourne Hippolyte et Aricie (read more here) and works with conductors like William Christie, Marc Minkowski, Emmanuelle Haïm and René Jacobs. He's also an outstanding Pelléas. Friends of mine admired his singing - and much more - as the "naked" Hamlet at La Monnaie. We were thrilled to hear him sing this wide-ranging programme.

Provocatively, Degout and Lepper began with Schubert Der Zwerg (D771, c 1822), usually the preserve of darkhued German baritones. Nearly sixty years ago, Gérard Souzay and Dalton Baldwin shook the Lieder world with their unidiomatic but brilliant Schubert. Now, Degout and Lepper show how French style can bring out great insight.. Degout's higher, sharper timbre captured the eeriness in Carl Loewe's Edward (Op 1/1 1818)  sinisterly underlining the brutality in the poem.

The Wigmore Hall has been wise this year to feature the same group of songs in several different recitals, so we can hear how different artists approach them. In September Bryn Terfel sang  Schumann Belsazar op 57, 1840) (more here) , his huge voice emphasizing its vast panorama. Degout's Belsazar  emphasized the personal horror that befalls the King at the very moment of his triumph. Luca Pisaroni and Angelika Kirchschlager Franz Liszt's Die drei Zigeuner (S320, 1860), each with their own style. Degout's interpretation highlighted the sardonic wit at the heart of Lenau's poem, somewhat obscured by Liszt's preference for pianistic display. Lepper created Liszt's sounds of the fiddle and cimbalom, but Degout reminded us that the Gypsies don't care what the world thinks. "Wenn das Leben uns nachtet, wie man's verschläft, verraucht, vergeigt, und es dreimal verachtet" 

Degout connected this Liszt song with Kurt Weill Die Ballade vom entrunkenen Mädchen (1928), employing logic lost on those who don't really know the songs. The drowned girl putrefies. Even God forgets her. The gypsies are poor but they make the  most of what they have, while they can. For his encores, Degout chose Hugo Wolf Verborhgenheit and Francis Poulencs Hôtel. When life is tough, some gloomily philosophize.  "We French", said Degout with a sardonic grin, "We smoke". "Le soleil passe son bras par la fenêtre. Mais moi qui veux fumer pour faire des mirages", wrote Apollinaire, distilling vast cultural concepts in a few ironic words. 

Thus we were gently positioned to better appreciate the values of French song as an aesthetic subtly different from German Lieder. Degout sang Gabriel Fauré Automne (Op 18/5, 1870) , creating the melancholic mood so beautifully that the sudden crescendo on the last words "avaient oubliées!" intensified the sense of painful regret.  When Degout sang Fauré's L'horizon chimérique (Op 118, 1921) , I could hardly breathe lest I miss a moment. This was exquisite singing,,  each word elegantly shaped and coloured with intelligence, precision underlining the emotional freedom the ocean represents. Lepper's playing evoked he rhythm of turbulent waves. so Degout's voice seemed to soar. Agile, athletic phrasing bristling with energy, so the serenity of the moon in Diane, Séléné felt all the more tantalizing. "Et mon coeur, toujours las et toujours agité, Aspire vers la paix de ta nocturne flamme". Degout made each nuance count. When he sang "j'ai de grands départs inassouvis en moi", the delicate balance between emotion and restraint felt almost too much to bear. 

Degout followed Fauré with Liszt's Three Petrach Sonnets (S270/1 1842-6). Perhaps his grounding in baroque helps him sing Italian with a clarity one doesn't often here in these songs, but is in accord with the early music aesthetic of Petrarch's era. These songs can be done well in an Italianate fashion, but this showed how universal they can be. Lepper's playing was elegant, Degout's singing divine.

 photo : Julien Benhamou, IMG Artists

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