Thursday, 9 December 2010

Hugues Cuénod and the art of singing

"I don't know if the world is farce but it is true that I always like to laugh and be surrounded by funny and imaginative friends. At the same time, all that I retain in my life is directly connected to those solemn moments like singing the Evangelist....and then the amusing things. I forget everything that is boring or puritanical, I think that nothing in life is really serious and that one must go through life as best one can, without thinking oneself important"

In wit often lies wisdom. Hugues Cuénod didn't have a booming, imposing voice but he used it intelligently. A piano doesn't play itself, nor a violin. Same too with voice. Physically muscles produce sound but what turns sound into art is the soul of the person within. Often we hear technically proficient voices but if the lights aren't on inside, so what?  Real singers whatever their level, aren't machines.

Hugues Cuénod shows what makes a true artist. He didn't make his Met debut til he was 85 but the Met wasn't the centre of his world. Paris was, or perhaps London, but in his heart, maybe he never really left Vevey in Switzerland where he was born and died 108 years later, adored by the local townsfolk. This the same young man who brought Monteverdi, Cavalli, medieval and baroque singing into the 20th century. He was one of the greatest Bach interpreters and  knew every composer, performer and significant artist in his time from Stravinsky onwards.  He mixed with high society, yet never let it go to his head. First and foremost he was an artist, with a sense of wonder and adventure. That's perhaps why he sang Krenek's Jonny spielt auf in 1928 when it was still edgy. When he did Bitterweet with Noel Coward they both knew how close it sailed to the wind with its gay undertones. And he was happy to be part of the 30's crooner duo Bab et Babette.

What else can singers today learn from Hugues Cuénod?  "I would say first of all to take music seriously and not try to advance too quickly......Above all, I believe it's necessary to acquire extra-musical culture and to profit by having other activities of a refined nature". He was working on Ravel Don Quichotte à Dulcinée with a young man. "I told him to go look at (a painting by Daumier) for half an hour so he could understand why his interpretation was not satisfactory.....That's the kind of advice I'd like to give. Go to museums, read, don't restrict yourself by working only on your music and your exercises. Take half your time for study and use the other half to see the world...Al that is of the utmost importance for having a balanced and interesting life."

"I am content with little, and turn to advantage all the tiresome things  that happen to me.  I  remember uniquely the good moments of my life, and I believe that my existence could be summed up by a completely secular trinity : the gift of music, the gift of idleness and the gift of being kind and agreeable with my friends"

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