A Celebration of Emmanuel Chabrier

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The Independent Culture

While Emmanuel Chabrier may have influenced Ravel, the wider public was slower to appreciate his subtly distinctive flavour. He's generally known today by the vivacious orchestral pieces "España" and "Joyeuse marche", but the essence of Chabrier is distilled in his piano pieces.

In the Wigmore Hall's "Celebration", Angela Hewitt played the 10 "Pièces pittoresques" and "La bourrée fantasque". On a technical level, she was faultless, showing no strain even in the athletic bravura of "La bourrée". Dressed to kill in blinding scarlet, and with gestures and facial expressions to suggest what we may have missed in her playing, she brought to mind the brisk authority of Miss Jean Brodie. But there is a warmth in Chabrier's music and, as Graham Johnson pointed out in his excellent programme notes, a never-far-off melancholy, which Hewitt disregarded completely.

Johnson, the mastermind behind the evening, showed a much more sensitive awareness of Chabrier's style in his partnership with Susan Gritton and Christopher Maltman in some of the songs. Even the earliest, written when the composer was no more than 21, showed Chabrier's characteristics of tenderness, jollity and his knack of taking unexpected turns. Gritton's slim, light soprano was well suited to "L'enfant" and "Chants d'oiseaux", though Maltman's ripe and rounded baritone seemed to my ears rather too bland for "Ronde gauloise" and "Sérénade".

A week after his portrait of Chabrier, Johnson presented an evening of songs by Camille Saint-Saëns, connected by his own typically perceptive outline of the composer's life. The life was more interesting than the music, which by itself would have been cloying, for the songs had more sweetness than character. Saint-Saëns was once praised for being able to compose in anybody else's style, but in "La feuille de peuplier", Johnson showed how, in stealing from Schubert's great song, "Die Krähe" from Winterreise, he merely prettified his model. "La cloche" was influenced by Liszt, and more remarkably, in "Le vent dans la plaine", his only setting of Verlaine, Saint-Saëns absorbed the mature style of his pupil Fauré.

The baritone François Le Roux sang with more gusto than finesse, while the soprano Lucy Crowe sang prettily and with excellent diction, and the tenor Colin Balzer sweetly, so long as he didn't force his top notes.