Gauvin Spins French Song Sorcery in Inaugural Weill Hall Vocal Recital

An incessant topic of audience conversation about acoustics in the newly-opened Weill Hall – where is best to sit, can the oboe be heard - has tended since the inaugural gala weekend to overshadow the actual performances. Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin put many of those notions to rest Oct. 13 with a splendid recital of mostly French art song before a half-full house.

With pianist Michael McMahon, Ms. Gauvin presented six groups of songs in French that, although it’s the singer’s native tongue, the French language can have too much sonic familiarity over a full recital. Singing in German or Italian, which Ms. Gauvin also commands, tends to have greater variety of style and of course different vowel and distinct sounds. The soprano avoided sonic monotony with richly varied tone colors and vocal expressiveness.

The singer, resplendent in a flowing blue gown that added to the impression of fluidity in French music, opened with four Hahn songs that included the magical "Si Mes Vers Avient des alles". This reviewer has always loved the classic but brisk Bidú Sayão recording, but in Weil and in a recording with virtuoso pianist Marc Andre-Hamlin Ms. Gauvin slowed things down to great effect, and continued with a lovely reading of "A Chloris". Harmonic interest is foremost in these songs and was highlighted in "Le Printemps" by Mr. McMahon’s fluid pianism.

Three Duparc songs came next and in "Chanson triste" Ms. Gauvin opened up with more volume, reflecting much of the music of Duparc’s contemporary Faure. "Chanson triste" has a long fermata for the piano, as "Phidylé" also does with a postlude, and Ms. Gauvin’s pianissimo control that hands off the phrase to her pianist was complete. She uses very little chest resonance in her lower tones that don’t carry well, the voice sometimes disappearing towards the back of the hall.

Massenet songs, again in a block of four, closed the first half. The frothy "Madrigal" led into the famous and sad "Elegy", the tempo for both songs was just right and the soprano’s voice beautifully colored and focused. "Les Femmes de Magdala", concerning women watching the world from the side of a road, produced an elegant call and response between the singer and pianist, and another bantamweight ending. The finale, "L’improvisateur", was rollicking.

Ms. Gauvin developed a happy rapport with her audience that included two members of her family, and remarked in song introductions about certain composers and certain anniversaries that affected her program selections. She frequently used an infectious laugh to punctuate stories and all was genuine and felicitous.

Ms. Gauvin performed a second half of 14 songs, all with impeccable intonation and disparate characterizations that continued the fluency of French song by using her operatic power deftly. Debussy’s "Nuit d’etoiles" was sung masterfully and the following "Mandoline" had a jolly character. The rhapsodic "Beau Soir" was a highlight of the evening, sensuously sung with palpable emotional impact.

Honegger’s set of six songs, Saluste de Bartas, was an upbeat antidote to the more conventional harmonies of the preceding music. Standing out were the interpretations of Le "Château du Bartas" with its repetitive rhythmic patterns in the piano part and bell-like tones, and the operatic "Tout le long de las Baïse" where Ms. Gauvin slightly widened her vibrato to accentuate this delicate and mesmerizing song, her voice liking to go high with sotto voce notes.

In Bizet the full palette of Ms. Gauvin’s vocal color was applied to four songs, each individual and passionately sung. "Adieux de ‘hôtesse arabe" was presented with an undulating line in the piano and a seamless and controlled legato from Ms. Gauvin. Bizet songs with a Spanish flavor ("Guitare" and "Ouvre ton coeur") were alternatively sung coquettishly and with a dissonant Seville flair, in contrast to the lively dance hall taste of the vivacious and exciting "La coccinelle". Ms. Gauvin seems to own "La coccinelle" with abundant facial expressions and connection with her audience and the singing was virtuosic.

Mr. McMahon was a consummate partner the entire evening, his arpeggios smooth and sforzandos dramatic and adding perfectly to Ms. Gauvin’s singing. He seldom had much original to say with his playing and eschewed inner voices, though a singer could not ask for a more dependable pianist.

Two encores in English were offered, beginning with Weill’s “Buddy on the Night Shift” (from the Propaganda Songs of 1944) and a Scottish folk song transcribed by an unnamed Canadian composer (Ms. Gauvin herself? Mr. Hamelin?). Both were idiomatically and stylishly performed and were a delight to the audience, eliciting additional bravas.

Terry McNeill, Classical Sonoma
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