Sandrine Piau‘s lovely recital with pianist Susan Manoff at The Philadelphia Chamber Music Society on February 14 entered around the themes of sleep, dreams and waking. 

In a brief meditation written by Piau and Manoff in the program booklet, they made a contrast between the beauty of the dream and the nightmare of waking. And Piau changed the order of her final group, songs from Banalités (1940) texts by Apollinaire, music by Poulenc from 1940 (the era of the Nazi Occupation of France) to end with the sorrowing “Sanglots” (Sobs) – a reference to the terrible riots then erupting in Paris following police brutality and perhaps, given the context in which the songs were written, to the current American chief executive.

Piau alternated songs in French and German. She ranged from delectable Mendelssohn (especially the gorgeous Nachtlied. Op. 71, No.6) to the young Richard Strauss – Mohenblumen had a breathtaking tracery of high pianissimi — to the late Romantic Berg where Die Nachtigall in particular had a thrilling soaring line.

Her German was clear and alertly inflected. Interestingly, in her native tongue she generalized sounds to a degree. One appreciated that, unlike some French singers of mélodi,e she did not turn the recital into an elocution lesson. On the other hand some incisiveness was lost. This may have something to do with a change in the articulation of sung French that occurred in the 1950’s. If one listens to pretty much any French trained singer before the Second World War one hears a purling, beautiful “song accent”. Vowels are very forward and slightly modified, consonants are handled very carefully. Yet every word is both clear and beautiful. Much of the magic of singers such as Ninon Vallin, Irene Joachim, Emma Luart comes from an unforgettable treatment of the language.

However, after the war, this “singer’s accent”, also used by actors and public speakers, was identified with the Nazi allied Vichy Government. The accent was condemned not only as affected but as “Fascist” and singers trained in the 50’s and after began to use an accent closer to spoken French. The “twang” of many vowels was kept, consonants were pronounced in a guttural way, the somewhat “elevated” nature of the older diction was abandoned for a more colloquial sounding elocution.

Piau began her career as a singularly gifted member of those many French ensembles that devoted themselves to “authentic” performances of the great operas, religious music and songs of the French Baroque, extending into Italian and German music as well. Since in many of the French works in particular the balance shifts from “song” to declamation with an emphasis on almost spoken projection of the musical text, this revision to singing accents was reinforced, as well as the taste for smaller voices that were often “white”.

Piau has matured remarkably, allowing her voice to age with her body. Unlike so many other light sopranos, she does not tamp down vibrato or resonance and never manipulates her sound to sound “girlish.” She has developed a rich and beautiful middle register and a warm, resonant lower range. She keeps her voice collected and of a piece with a strong forward placement (visible in her cheek bones and dropped jaw) but she sings out with confidence and to fine effect.

Her somewhat generalized articulation was not a bad thing in most of what she sang. In the five songs by the young Debussy that started the second half of her recital, she sang with an utterly beguiling, spinning tone, delicate and yet full bodied. Influenced by his teacher, Massenet, Debussy really composed mini-arias, and Piau caressed the beautiful phrases with great charm.

Her diction, though, offered a slight difficulty in Francis Poulenc’s charming small cycle, La Courte Palle from 1960, which was dedicated to the composer’s favorite singer, Denise Duval, on the occasion of the birth of her son. They are meant as children’s songs (although for highly sophisticated children!) and in an amusing patter song like Ba, be, bi, bo, bu a more precise enunciation with the tone springing off the notes is essential. This Piau didn’t quite manage. And Manoff, who had accompanied the Debussy with a very rich and well-judged sonority, was not quite crisp enough. However they performed the most wonderful and touching song in this cycle, Les Anges musiciens, with its dreamy references to Mozart, quite wonderfully.

In her final announced song, Sanglots, she showed an ability to harness powerful emotional force within the framework of an eloquent and personal song, filling out Poulenc’s forceful lines with rich tone, intensity of utterance but with a certain elegance. She announced her second encore, shyly, in English, saying it was the first time she had sung the song in public. It was Ivor Gurney’s “Come, sleep, and with thy sweet deceiving lock me in delight awhile. (Gurney was gassed in the First World War, diagnosed with shell shock after and spent the last fifteen years of his short life in asylums.) Piau’s English was crystalline and her emotional connection with the longing of this song, heartbreaking.

Piau sang with such style and heart, such vocal command, that one can’t wait to encounter her again.

The Philadelphia Chamber Music Society offers perhaps the most consistently rewarding serious music series in the city. Their programing is broad and they try to offer a range of vocal recitals. In the past they have presented Gerard Finley and Kurt Moll both in Winterreisse, Bernarda Fink, Magdalena Kozena, a remarkable concert by Eric Owens, and a stunning evening of Schumann and Berg with Dorothea Röschmann accompanied by Mitsuko Uchida. Uchida played phenomenally, and wept and sang along during the Schumann. Röschmann had caught on by the Berg and opened her voice giving a stunning account of the Seven Early Songs.

The best recent concert (before Piau) was an evening by Matthew Polenzani, in superb voice, singing with great charm, musicianship and understanding, accompanied by Julius Drake (they also did a magical Schöne Müllerin in 2007).

Photo by: Sandrine Expilly