'In the shadow of the opera' was the title of this opening event in accompanist Graham Johnson’s exploration of the mélodies which were the French answer to German Lieder.
Song-writing was regarded by French composers in the 19th century as nursery slopes to be mastered before winning the operatic acclaim which was the goal. By asserting in his programme-note that operatic success had ‘a tinselly aspect’ in the eyes of chamber musicians, Johnson set up an expectation that this joint recital by soprano Lucy Crowe and baritone Christopher Maltman would make their case.
But the initial statements had a contradictory effect. In Gounod’s ‘Tombez mes ailes’, Maltman’s sound and manner seemed straight out of the opera house, with fortissimo volume and a roughness of phrasing which sat ill with this place and occasion.
Lucy Crowe’s answering ‘Au rossignol’ was Gounod’s setting of Lamartine’s ecstatic poem to the nightingale, but though she found an appropriate serenity of tone she didn’t manage to project the words, which for a song-recital was the equivalent of a fall at the first fence.
With the omnicompetent Johnson officiating at the piano things bowled smoothly along, with the singers taking it in turns to come forward, and giving so comprehensive a map of this musical terrain that one could appreciate both the strengths and the limitations of the art-form.
Its main limitation lay in the prevailing mood. Winsome charm was the overriding goal, because this was basically salon stuff.
One longed for the dramatically searing truthfulness of a Schubert or a Schumann: these mélodies slipped down all too easily, leaving no trace behind. Those songs which came closest to arias worked best – such as Debussy’s ‘Apparition’ and Faure’s ‘La chanson du pecheur’ – while the settings of Victor Hugo’s poems testified to his central importance in 19th century French literature; his dry wit brought out something musically comparable in Lalo and Saint-Saens, while his contemporary Alfred de Musset’s sly reworking of a poem by Horace allowed Crowe and Maltman to duet combatively in the guise of two ex-lovers, who out of sheer world-weariness might just get together again.
And by the time they sang their encore, they’d found a way to match their sound and style, with Maltman finally as comfortable as Crowe evidently was with French.