Left in the dark

SONG RECITALS: Susan Graham; Wigmore Hall, London; Paul Agnew Purcell Room, SBC, London
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The Independent Culture
The American Susan Graham is familiar to opera audiences here as a creamy-voiced mezzo, and she's currently making her first international recital tour. Her programme at the Wigmore Hall on Tuesday included songs and arias in German, Italian, French and English, by Mozart, Mahler, Strauss, Reynaldo Hahn, Poulenc and several Americans - quite a range. Graham looked dignified, rather like a glossy advertisement in The New Yorker, sheathed in a very expensive-looking gown of stiff silk. Her voice is steady and strong, and she was impressively agile in "Al desio, di chi t'adora", a later addition to Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro. But she was also rather cool, and all the pathos of Mahler's Wo die schonen Trompeten blasen had to be imagined from the extraordinary scene-painting of Roger Vignoles's piano part, which he drew very sharply. Nor did anyone feel like laughing at the end of the nonsense-song Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht?, as surely they should.

Graham chose some very difficult songs by Strauss, including the cruelly high-lying Leises Lied, which was a small triumph of technique but not very comfortable listening. The much better-known Cacilie wanted more punch and ardour. It was rather a relief, after the interval, to relax to the sophisticated simplicity of Hahn's songs with their gratefully shaped vocal lines: quasi-baroque in A Chloris, reminiscent of Faure in Si mes vers avaient des ailes, though Graham didn't quite melt into its curves. Her words could have been more forward in Poulenc's Metamorphoses, too, but the American songs, both humorous and romantic, by Ned Rorem, John Musto, Bernstein and Bolcom showed that she didn't articulate very energetically in English either.

Graham has a very good voice but she seemed a slightly aloof performer. She really unbent for the first time in her second encore, "Non so piu", from Mozart's Figaro, into which she threw herself with a sort of painful urgency - a good alternative for the more usual breathlessness.

On Wednesday Paul Agnew and Christopher Wilson began their Purcell Room programme of Dowland and Morley in darkness. After the second Dowland song, Agnew told us they didn't want to add to the mood of despair, but the lights made a constant buzz. His words were clear enough to make printed texts unnecessary, but his honeyed tone tempted you to ignore any meaning. Only a very light voice can match the lute's intimate sound, and the way these two musicians melded was the next best thing to one doing both jobs. Within a certain range, Agnew used considerable light and shade without seeming to exaggerate, but his soft-grained tenor was so suave, his manner so genially confiding, you couldn't take all that melancholy too seriously.

Adrian Jack