In an effort to give the proceedings an intimate, salon feel, the Symphony Hall stage was dotted with a couple of potted plants, three armchairs, and a pair of music stands; the cavernous environ of the space was still very much present, but one appreciated the effort to minimize it, even if only partially successful.
By Jonathan Blumhofer
It’s not quite as rare as two brothers coaching opposing teams in the Super Bowl, but duo recitals—let alone tours—featuring singers of the caliber of Renée Fleming and Susan Graham are few and far between. On Sunday, Ms. Fleming and Ms. Graham, who this month mark 25 years of friendship, appeared in concert at Symphony Hall in Boston, courtesy of the Celebrity Series, as part of a six-city tour of a recital program devoted almost entirely to French music of the belle époque.
In an effort to give the proceedings an intimate, salon feel, the Symphony Hall stage was dotted with a couple of potted plants, three armchairs, and a pair of music stands; the cavernous environ of Symphony Hall was still very much present, but one had to appreciate the effort to minimize it, even if only partially successful. Ms. Fleming and Ms. Graham also provided spoken introductions between sets of songs that, though clearly rehearsed, were informative and often amusing. Further, each half of the program began somewhat unexpectedly with snatches of a taped interview with Mary Garden, the diminutive muse of Massenet, Debussy, and others. Could this be a model for new recital presentations? Probably not, and that’s not a bad thing (it doesn’t take much to imagine this format falling apart disastrously), but with hosts as genial as we had on Sunday, it offered a nice change from the formality one usually encounters at these type affairs.
The program’s first half was devoted to music by Saint-Saëns, Fauré, Debussy, and Delibes. Of the three Saint-Saëns songs, it was the last—”El desdichado” with a text by Jules Barbier—that left the strongest impression, with a snappy rhythmic profile and the duo’s precise trills on the closing syllables of each verse standing out.
Gabriel Fauré was perhaps the greatest melodist among late-nineteenth-century French composers, and he was represented on Sunday with four songs. The best known of the set, the op. 50 “Pavane,” came across as nearly a miniature operatic scene, with Ms. Fleming and Ms. Graham plumbing the inherent drama of the text through their delicate vocal shadings. Similarly, “Pleurs d’or,” with its sliding chromatic harmony that foreshadows Debussy, was delivered with pitch-perfect intonation and focused intensity. These were framed by the two duets op. 10, the first lush and lyrical, the second (“Tarantelle”) spinning wildly and featuring some finely etched antiphonal moments between the singers.
Bradley Moore, who superbly and sensitively accompanied throughout the afternoon, was given a solo turn for which he chose Debussy’s famous “Claire de lune.” It might have been nice to hear something less familiar, but he gave a shapely account of Debussy’s famous miniature that was received with murmurs of recognition over its opening bars.
The highlight of the first half, though, was Ms. Fleming’s solo account of two Debussy chansons, “Mandoline” and “Beau soir.” The latter, in particular, stood out: a meditation on the evening sky and brevity of life, its conclusion was greeted with a hushed stillness that was positively breathtaking. Ms. Fleming also brought knowing wit to her final solo, Delibes’s “Les filles de Cadix.”
After intermission (and a wardrobe change), Ms. Graham took the stage for four melodies by Reynaldo Hahn: “Le rossignol des lilas,” “Infidélité,” “Fêtes galante,” and “Le printemps.” She nailed the opening of the first, which begins with voice and piano together at once—no preparation for the vocalist—and that gutsiness set the tone for what was to come. The sober “Infidélité” and gossipy “Fêtes galante“were studies in character contrasts, while the finale (which anticipates the Strauss of “Zueignung” in a couple of spots) allowed Ms. Graham’s voice to soar. It was thrilling.
Berlioz’s “La mort d’Ophélie” then provided Ms. Graham (who just completed a triumphant run as Didon in Les Troyens at the Met) an opportunity to channel her enthusiasm for a composer who, more than nearly any other, resonated with the work of Shakespeare. Surely, few composers have managed to depict so vividly and movingly Ophelia’s demise as Berlioz, and Ms. Graham didn’t let the moment pass her by. Again joined by Ms. Fleming, the duo gave a sobering account of this tragic scene; the closing, wordless vocalise over a gentle, undulating accompaniment was especially haunting.
The heightened drama of “La mort d’Ophélie” served as something of a bridge to the last set of pieces on the program, all drawn from the world of musical theater. The first, André Messager’s “Blanche-Marie et Marie-Blanche,” a charming, if frivolous, duet between two women who think they are twins, allowed Ms. Fleming and Ms. Graham plenty of opportunities to show off their comic chops, and they did so with abandon. The “Barcarolle” from Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffmann and the “Flower Duet” from Delibes’s Lakmé then rounded things off with performances that were simply marvels of phrasing and liquid tone.
Perhaps aware of the time before kick-off, the duo didn’t make their audience wait for encores. They began with a sharp, witty account of “Ah guarda, sorella” from Act I of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte, an opera they have never performed together; after Sunday’s performance, I hope some enterprising company (BLO, maybe?) casts them as the sisters Fiordiligo and Dorabella before too long.
Two solo encores followed: Ms. Graham stole the show accompanying herself in a simple, touching arrangement of “La Vie en rose” that proved unforgettable, and Ms. Fleming returned for a selection from Cantaloube’s Chants d’Auvergne. After a final exchange of compliments, Ms. Fleming and Ms. Graham closed the concert (and their tour) with a sweet, gentle account of “Abends wenn ich schlafen geh’” from Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel. Like so much of this recital, it proved perfect in planning and execution.
Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.