On the Beat
Véronique Gens brings beauty and gravitas to her recording of music by Chausson, Hahn and Duparc.
by Brian Kellow.
“People think French songs are too precious and special,” says Gens. “They don’t even try to learn new things.”
© Franck Juery/Alpha Classics
Néère, a collection of songs by Hahn, Duparc and Chausson, is one of the most entrancing recordings of French mélodie I have heard in some time. (See review, p. 71.) For me, the high point of the disc is “Le temps des lilas,” Chausson’s achingly wistful setting of a poem by Maurice Bouchor; Gens’s performance of it manages to be simultaneously elegant and impassioned.
During a recent phone interview, Gens told me that her aim was to get away from the familiar works of Debussy, Fauré and Poulenc and highlight the diversity of the repertoire. “Chausson is kind of dark, with a lot of anxiety,” she says. “Duparc is so operatic, compared with Hahn, who is lighter, more optimistic—none of the melancholy that you have in Duparc and Chausson. I wanted to do things that people wouldn’t know. Nobody performs Hahn’s Études Latines.” Gens finds that a program of mélodie is a hard sell even in France. “People won’t come if it’s only French songs,” she sighs. “The presenters say, ‘Could you add some Schubert and Schumann?’”
Gens admits that she has had difficulty branching out artistically, fenced in by her sterling reputation as a singer of French Baroque music. “I love it still,” she says, “but after a while I could feel that it was time to sing something else. Everything I learned about Baroque music I can use in these French songs. It’s the importance of the words, and of the colors and the declamation. I sang almost only French Baroque. When you sing Handel and Monteverdi, this kind of Italian music, you can open the voice and sing. For French Baroque, the vocal grammar is very special. The ornaments and the straight sounds—no vibrato—are so demanding on the voice that you never leave your voice to sing naturally. You always have to hold it in, and after a while, it’s not healthy, I think.”
Gens has worked with many of the leading conductors of the Baroque repertoire, including MARC MINKOWSKI, RENÉ JACOBS and, most crucially, WILLIAM CHRISTIE. “I was able to sing in big halls very soon,” she says. “Even if you learn many things in school, the best way to learn is by being onstage.”
IN MID FEBRUARY, the 45th GEORGE LONDON FOUNDATION AWARDS COMPETITION was held. I attended much of the semifinals level, which was most interesting for the fachs that were underrepresented: spinto sopranos and tenors, dramatic mezzos and Wagnerians of any stripe were mighty thin on the ground. The $10,000 top prizes were justly awarded to tenor A. J. GLUECKERT, singing Walther’s prize song, from Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg; baritone DAVID PERSHALL, for his firm, gleaming tone in a beautifully articulated Starbuck’s Aria, from Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick; KIRSTEN MacKINNON, who lent her gloriously full-bodied lyric soprano to Faust’s jewel song; soprano CLAUDIA ROSENTHAL, who gave a funny, confident and stylish account of “Non, Monsieur mon mari” from Les Mamelles de Tirésias (with great character-actor support from the afternoon’s pianist, CRAIG RUTENBERG); baritone STEVEN LaBRIE, with a melting, moving performance of the Tanzlied from Die Tote Stadt; and, best of all, ANTONINA CHEHOVSKA, whose dusky soprano and soulful rendering were a perfect fit for Tatiana’s letter scene. There were also nine Encouragement Awards of $1,000 each; the standout in this group was an astonishingly poised and natural-sounding mezzo, EMILY D’ANGELO, whose lovely performance of “Voi che sapete” was particularly impressive, because she is only twenty-one. (D’Angelo was the only competitor asked to sing three selections in the semifinals.) One interesting sidebar: two talented contestants, soprano MARINA COSTA-JACKSON and baritone SEAN MICHAEL PLUMB, had to settle for “honorable mentions.” They gave two of the “bigger” performances of the competition, and one wonders if someone on the jury was resistant to their histrionics.