Viardot And Friends, Wigmore Hall, London
Friday 03 March 2006
It was meant to be the evocation of a star from 19th-century Paris. Pauline Viardot, the Spanish-born mezzo-soprano, inspired the city's composers with her voice, and the writer Ivan Turgenev with her soul and whatever else it took to establish a ménage à trois alongside her accommodating husband. You can read histories of the period and scarcely be aware of her prowess as a composer. This concert aimed to set the record straight.
Such was the cast involved that it almost ended up as a celebration of several stars of today - the American mezzo Frederica von Stade,soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci, baritone Vladimir Chernov and the superbly responsive pianist David Harper. The French actress Fanny Ardant delivered a linking script by Georgia Smith with a grandly enthused, erratic and infectious flair.
It was a good-hearted occasion - admiring, irreverent and full of relish. Viardot's songs are steeped in her experience as a singer and linguist. They start from an exceptional, intimate knowledge of the sounds of each language that she set. At first the effect is like a musicianly chameleon. A French song sounds like early Fauré, a Russian one like Tchaikovsky, and two of the finest, in German, hark back in their harmonies and surging melodies to Schumann.
The underlying, consistent musical personality came out most clearly in the simplest songs such as "Ici-bas tous les lilas meurent". Some bolder numbers such as the setting of Pushkin's "Buria" were expressively undercooked, but Viardot rose to the pride and scorn of Hermione's scena from Andromache, pick of the evening's operatic excerpts.
You could scarcely have found more positive advocates. Von Stade is a nuanced but unfussy singer of music whose proponents can easily make it precious. Antonacci was forthright and stylish in Spanish and Italian, and Chernov found sensitivities that Harper was able to pick up in some ravishing piano postludes. The event was complete and satisfying enough without any of the accepted great works of its time - a tribute to the prevailing high quality of an often underestimated musical milieu.
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