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Friday, January 31, 2014

Concert Review: The Night Was Sultry

Alice Coote sings French chansons at Zankel Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Hot house: The mezzo Alice Coote. Photo © IMG Artists.
The grand tradition of French art song (usually referred to as chanson or melodie) is not as instantly familiar as the German lied. In this country, French music of the Romantic and Modern era  is usually heard in the concert hall, ballet theater or opera house, with the vast trove of songs relegated to academics or silently ignored. On Thursday night, English mezzo-soprano Alice Coote sought to correct that oversight with a vast and wide-ranging program of chansons, plucked and proudly displayed in a recital at Zankel Hall, the modern recital space tucked neatly beneath its parent, Carnegie Hall.

Recent years have seen Ms. Coote rise to the front rank of mezzo-sopranos, singing heroic trouser parts in Handel and Strauss. Her bright instrument has a rich lower body, but turns flinty in its upper register, moving into a noticeable "head" voice that can be uncomfortable when placed under pressure, and early high notes seemed forced. As her instrument warmed to the repertory (helped by the skillful, sensitive accmpaniment of Mr. Graham Johnson) she began to deliver the expressive warmth that these demanding little songs call for.

The program began with Francois Poulenc, one of the most modern composers in this survey. His "Les chemins de l'amour" started the recital with its length and rhythms challenging the singer as her instrument warmed to its task. Two Reynaldo Hahn songs followed, including the glittering "Les etoiles" with its demanding ornamentation and glittering piano part. These were followed by chansons of Gabriel Faure ("Le secret") and Charles Gounod ("Sérenade", "Au printemps"). As each song was performed, the point of the evening became clear: this wide array of repertory has been silenced for too long, this important area of French music unjustly neglected by the listener of the 21st century.

The next group was devoted to Romantic composers, and songs that described or evoked flowers. Color and mood are central to each one of these creations, ranging from the proud Romantic blooms of Berlioz' "La Spectre de la Rose" to the florid post-Wagnerism of Emmanuel Chabrier and Ernest Chausson. Working from a vast catalog of sheet music and in close collaboration with Mr. Johnson, Ms. Coote created carefully arranged bouquets for the listener's consideration. This part of the program made one feel as if colors and scents were being drawn from the songs, a welcome illusion that absorbed the audience.

The latter half of the evening took a more  serious tone, exploring songs by little-known composers like Alfred Bachelet (the evocative "Chère nuit") and  David Koechlin ("Novembre," a brilliant, bleak piece.) Also represented: Claude Debussy. The exotic ideas and harmonies of "Auprès de cette grotte sombre" pointing the way forward to modernism even through its brilliant use of Greek myth and classical imagery

Reynaldo Hahn returned, with "La fumée" having a consistent texture that evoked the traiing scent of rich tobacco and the decadence of Parisian cabarets. That city's night-life was also repreented in the passionate, unusually straightforward "Je le veux", a torch song by Montmarte pianist, composer and surrealist Erik Satie. This last was one of the most compelling performances of the night, a slightly lop-eared waltz that still burned with carefully managed passion.

The proper set ended with more Poulenc: the slight but charming songs "Voyage à Paris", and "Hôtel", minatures that are minor miracles of compact expression and color. These were followed by "La grenouillère" and "Voyage," the latter leading into the set-ending reprise of "Les chemins." This last served almost as a baroque recapitulation as Ms. Coote let her voice range freely into its upper register. Ms Coote chose to give two encores. The first was more Poulenc: "C'est ainsi que tu es". The evening ended with Faure, the appropriate "Adieu" trailing into wisps of sweet nothingness.

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