The Aldeburgh Connection season opener, Clair de lune – music by Gabriel Fauré. Walter Hall, October 16, 2011 2:30pm. Soprano Shannon Mercer, mezzo-soprano Anita Krause, tenor Andrew Haji, baritone Brett Polegato. Stephen Ralls and Bruce Ubukata, piano.
Even though it turned 30 this year, The Aldeburgh Connection, a concert series dedicated to the art of song in all its disguises, is something of a best kept secret in town. It doesn’t help that the concerts are usually held in the drab Walter Hall on early Sunday afternoon – though the anniversary gala concert will be held at the glam Koerner Hall where the Aldeburgh will finally have sufficient sizzle room. (The Sunday 2:30pm time will not be tempered with, not even for that.)
The men behind the programming are Stephen Ralls (who charmed the breeches out of everybody at the last year’s Opera Exchange dedicated to Britten’s Death in Venice) and Bruce Ubukata, and what well thought-out programming it is: both the annual program brochure and this concert’s are full of superbly written copy and deserve to be kept as reference. The design (let’s avoid the odious word ‘brand’) of the series, on the other hand, seems intentionally old-fashioned. The website shows its vintage, the series image is an art deco-style illustration, and what precisely was the reason for the rug in the middle of the stage? (For the salon-y feel?) But no matter: a vocal series can be proudly uncool and still be great.
Today’s program followed Fauré’s life chronologically, with a significant twist: the songs were grouped under the name of the woman who was most influential in Fauré’s life at the time of composing. The pianist Ralls and Ubukata took turns between the songs reading from relevant correspondence, moving us from one period to the next, with the two women singers occasionally giving voice to the female characters. It’s a fun and educational enough approach, and the audience loved it, but I wonder if more musicological information and less biography might have been a better mix. “Sixty years of song-writing,” says the program note, “took GF from his early, Gounod-esque, even Mendelssohnian, creations to later style, spare yet adventurous, which could parallel that of Satie or Poulenc. He absorbed an amazing number of influences, beginning with Saint-Saens…” I wish we could hear more about things of that sort elucidating his composing trajectory, rather than focus entirely on his heart’s trajectory, though I am aware that the two have been connected. The printed programme offers more in this regard (“Listen to the contrast between the pleasant but derivative ‘Le Papillon et la fleur’ and the unique voice which suddenly sounds in ‘Lydia’”), so it could have been a conscious decision to put the intrigue and letters on stage, and reserve the analysis for the printed programme.
Few of the best-known songs were included, and that is always an excellent programming choice. There was ‘Chanson du pêcheur’ by Theophile Gautier, which was nice to hear as very different to its better known double, the Lamento in Berlioz’s Nuits d’été. The ‘Cinque Mélodies de Venise’ (words Paul Verlaine) were sung in full as a cycle with all four voices engaged (‘Mandoline’ and ‘En sourdine’ you can hear in the recently released CD Fête Galante by Karina Gauvin with Marc-André Hamelin). Only one song from the famous ‘Bonne Chanson’ cycle was included, ‘La lune blanche’ (which you can hear in a von Otter recording of the cycle and more, La Bonne Chanson), but we got to hear a soprano/mezzo/tenor scene from Fauré’s only opera, Pénélope; two of the songs from his very last cycle; a madrigal in four voices, and for the encore, the vocal version of the Pavane.
The singing was competent, with some forays above and below. The soprano Shannon Mercer and baritone Brett Polegato formed the reliable backbone of competence (I often see La Mercer perform that role in smaller productions). Mercer added dramatic expressiveness to her singing from the beginning, and Polegato was particularly effective in this regard in the last two songs written by a poet who died in the First World War.
Mezzo is my preferred voice; I notice it first and am immediately ready to appreciate it. This time and unusually the mezzo wasn’t quite there. Anita Krause’s voice wasn’t %100, and it sounded closer to marking than full commitment. All three singers have long and distinguished histories of performing, so I can’t explain this idiosyncrasy. The voice that left the greatest impression was the voice of the barely-out-of-university tenor Andrew Haji. In evidence was a fully coloured, (never mind a slipped note or two) confident, muscular voice and a willingness to develop different dramatic personae for each song and always to give his all. Maybe it’s the eagerness of a young voice that gives it that extra engine? Whatever it is, Haji left his mark.
Happy anniversary, Aldeburgh, and at least 30 more.
Pavane is probably Fauré’s single most recognizable and performed piece. Here it is in the 2008 Italian film Il Divo (dir. Paolo Sorrentino) about the indestructible Italian politician Giulio Andreotti. In this scene, the insomniac statesman goes out for a walk before dawn and discovers an unflattering graffito about himself. It is one of the most beautiful films ever made about the ugliness of political power – highly recommended, and not only for its music.