Susan Graham's French Fare Is Delectable

Mezzo-soprano Susan Graham (shown in 2006) was a warm presence at the Terrace.
Mezzo-soprano Susan Graham (shown in 2006) was a warm presence at the Terrace. (Stephen Chernin - AP)
By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 29, 2007

Susan Graham's Friday night recital at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater proved a startlingly lovely and surprisingly comprehensive survey of 19th- and 20th-century French song.

All the legendary names were here -- Bizet, Fauré, Saint-Saëns, Debussy, Ravel, Poulenc, Messiaen. Yet Graham also paid tribute to lesser-known composers. Outside of a few smart, insular aficionados, who now knows the music of Emile Paladilhe, Alfred Bachelet or Andre Caplet, all of whom were represented on the program? And Manuel Rosenthal is remembered almost entirely for "Gaîté Parisienne," a confection of Offenbach melodies: Graham gave us one of Rosenthal's own.

This would be of mere academic interest had the singing been less impressive. But Graham is a wonderfully adaptive artist, somebody who inhabits any song that she chooses to make her own. She was as at home floating through a creamy, wordless "Vocalise" by Fauré as she was in Caplet's "Le Corbeau et le Renard," which would be rendered nonsensical without a text (and a sharply characterized one, at that). Her sound is fresh, lustrous and varied; her interpretations have the deceptive simplicity that can be attained only through a combination of long meditation, careful choices and a great deal of hard work.

I have found that song recitals tend to scare away some listeners who are otherwise well-dispositioned to classical music. Perhaps it is the starkness of the setting (usually one singer, one pianist and an appropriately hushed environment) or the close listening that is demanded for full appreciation, or maybe it is just a language barrier. But Graham is such a warm and welcoming presence, with such a happy and unaffected smile, that she would seem an ideal ambassador. Anybody who was uncomfortable at the Terrace Theater on Friday night was simply uncomfortable.

The evening was enhanced by the firm, nuanced and unfailingly expressive pianism of Malcolm Martineau, who also wrote the incisive program notes. One of the most famous misquotations in the literature has it that "music soothes the savage beast." In fact, the playwright William Congreve wrote that "music hath charms to soothe a savage breast, / To soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak." But Graham's infinitely tender rendition of the lullaby from Canteloube's "Songs of the Auvergne" would have likely worked the same wonders on any beast of my acquaintance.

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