Fans of mezzo-soprano Susan Graham will take much pleasure from this recent CD recital derived from a 2012 tour with her accompanist, Malcolm Martineau. Admired especially for heroic roles in French operas by Gluck and Berlioz (e.g., Iphigenie and Didon), Graham offers a nobility, warmth and purity of tone combined with an ability to sustain a long line beautifully, and a range that allows her to succeed in roles taking her well into soprano territory. Here she tackles a remarkable variety of composers from Henry Purcell to Cole Porter in a program that includes German lieder, French chansons, and Broadway showpieces, as well as one familiar Russian song.
I'm not sure how accurately the title of the program applies to the contents: Graham does open with songs sung by or about three famous virgins or virginal women — Mary, Ophelia and Mignon — followed by one virago (literally a manlike woman), Lady Macbeth. But I can't figure out how the term "vixen" connects to any of the French and American songs that follow; the Porter song's narrator is saucy, but that's not the same thing. (The booklet's German and French translations of the title don't apply either: the German offers "Virgins, Vamps and Yet More" [Jungfrauen, Vamps und nochmehr]; the French give us mégère [Vierges, mégèreset viragos], which means shrew, harpy, viper — or either 'vixen' or 'virago' according to Google Translate!).
A less trivial complaint is that the booklet commentary, while providing some valuable information, does leave out certain important details, and doesn't always follow the order of the program. Also, Stephen Sondheim is given sole credit for the song "The Boy from…" everywhere in the booklet, including the cover, except for one quick mention in the commentary of the composer: Mary Rodgers (daughter of Richard and composer of several Broadway shows), though to be sure the music is little more than a take-off from "The Girl from Ipanema.”" Sondheim wrote "only" the lyrics, even if the song is nothing without them.
Far more important, as attractive as I found Graham's singing throughout the recital, I did sense — at least in some songs — less emotional engagement with both the overall dramatic situations and the word-by-word declamation than I would have liked.
Graham opens with Purcell's remarkably intensescena The Blessed Virgin's Expostulation, based ON menu header a poem by Nahum Tate (librettist for Dido and Aeneas), in which Mary has — to use a crudely modern and overly simplistic term — an anxiety attack when her 12-year-old son Jesus wanders out of her sight in the marketplace. Graham handles the elaborate melisma of this 1693 work very well indeed, and if she does not convey Mary's panic as harrowingly as other sopranos might, she does project the grief powerfully enough. Martineau's accompaniment on piano (subbing for whatever keyboard instrument Purcell designated — the notes don't tell us) is discreet.
Graham is perhaps most in her element in Berlioz's Mort d'Ophélie, an 1842 setting of a French poem paraphrasing Gertrude's description of Ophelia's death. (Listeners may know the setting better in the composer's 1848 orchestration with female choir.) The serene sad loveliness of Graham's narration seems perfect for the song.
Next is a suite of six settings of poems embedded in
Goethe's novel Wilhelm Meister, spoken by the haunted and haunting orphan
Mignon. Here I felt that a general beauty of tone was not enough to bring the
individual qualities of each poem to full life. The selections are by Schubert,
Schumann, Tchaikovsky ("None But the Lonely Heart," sung in Russian, the
tune later incorporated into the Andante
cantabile melody of his First String Quartet), Liszt, Duparc, and
Wolf — the last three all settings of "Kennst
du das Land." In the case of the Liszt, Richard Stokes' program
notes compare his two versions of the song, 1842 and 1860, with Stokes finding
the earlier version far inferior to the revision; but the descriptions make it
clear that Graham is in fact singing that first version!
The Duparc setting ("Le connais-tu, ceradieux pays") is both lovely and impassioned in Graham's performance, but Wolf's hyper-emotional setting of the same song is disappointing: Graham is hardly staid but not deeply involved either. One needn't look back to the overwhelming performance by Elizabeth Schwarzkopf with Gerald Moore on EMI, hovering on the edge of absolute hysteria but never toppling over: the more recent recording by Geraldine McGreevey with Graham Johnson on Hyperion is pretty thrilling. Martineau, except for the climax of the second verse, seems a bit too aware of his role of accompanist to let himself luxuriate in the extravagant piano part.
The Viennese-British Joseph Horowitz's "scena" Lady Macbeth (1970)is new to me, and a bit of a puzzle. It's not really one dramatic scene for Shakespeare's character but a setting of three texts: her bloodthirsty reaction to the news that Duncan will sleep that night at her castle; the murder of Duncan; and the sleepwalking scene. Together the piece lasts just over 7 minutes: the first part is like a recitative; the murder scene features an effective scurrying rhythm in the piano; the sleepwalking scene is the most musically varied, and allows ample room for an exciting vocal performance. But I found the whole thing less than gripping, either musically or dramatically.
Both Graham and Martineau are at their best in Poulenc's Fiançailles pour rire, a set of six songs with somewhat cryptic texts: the music is sometimes playful, more often moody or suspended in time (think of a very slow walk through a drizzly and deserted Parisian street). The waltz-tempo song Les chemins de l'amour is sung enchantingly.
In the American pop vein Graham brings perhaps more dignity, almost serenity, to Vernon Duke's "Ages Ago" than a more bluesy torch-singer might, but it's a sensitive, not overly operatic rendition all the same. And she makes the most of the clever lyrics of Porter's "The Physician" and especially Rodgers/Sondheim's The Girl from…" — the latter should be quite a hilarious showstopper when performed live.
The Onyx engineers capture the clarity and dynamic range of Graham's voice quite well, though Martineau's piano is a bit recessed, most significantly in the Poulenc songs.