Notes and Editorial Reviews
Susan Graham has an enthusiastic international following and this impressive six disc set should not disappoint her fans. She certainly possesses an exceptional talent for communicating songs. This coupled with a smooth and creamy timbre.
The Art of Susan Graham:
6 CDs including a booklet essay about Susan Graham. Song texts are not provided.
CD 1: Opera Arias by Mozart and Gluck
CD 2: Songs and Operetta Arias by Brahms, Debussy, Berg, Poulenc, Messager, Simons, Hahn, Mahler, Moore
CD 3: Orchestral Songs Cycles by Chausson, Ravel, Debussy/Adams
CD 4: French Operetta Arias by Simons, Messager, Yvain, Honegger, Hahn
CD 5: Opera Arias and Songs by Handel, Berlioz, Ives,
CD 6: Songs by Ned Rorem
Susan Graham (mezzo)
Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)
Malcolm Martineau (piano)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Yan Pascal Tortelier
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Yves Abel
Les Arts Florissants/William Christie
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/Harry Bicket
Orchestre de l’Opéra de Lyon/Kent Nagano
Orchestre de l’Opéra de Lyon/John Nelson
San Francisco Opera Orchestra/Patrick Summers
This is a generous and rewarding collection. It offers almost six and a half hours of music although the details on the box state over an hour less music. This agreeably comprehensive programme ranges from Handel and Mozart opera arias to Mahler and Berg lieder, from Ravel and Debussy orchestral songs to cabaret songs from contemporary composer Ned Rorem and Ben Moore. Graham’s Grammy award-winning performances of Charles Ives’ Songs is the highlight of the disc for me. My only disappointment was that it was seemingly not possible to include any works from the pen of Richard Strauss; a composer for whom I believe Graham has a special affinity.
A few biographical details of the may prove useful. Graham was born in 1960 at Roswell in the state of New Mexico. She was brought up in Midland, Texas where she graduated from the Texas Tech University at Lubbock. It was a pivotal occasion when she went up to New York City to study at the Manhattan School of Music. The hard-working Graham has made a highly successful international career in recital and has become a leading star in the world’s greatest opera houses.
Graham’s artistic prowess and characterisation have made her a popular choice in what have become signature ‘trouser roles’; notably Cherubino from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro and Octavian in Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. In 1991 she made her New York Metropolitan Opera debut in Mozart’s The Magic Flute followed by her Covent Garden debut in 1994 in the title role of Massenet's Chérubin. Surprisingly Graham had to wait until 2003 for her Carnegie Hall recital debut and it was 2006 before she finally appeared at a BBC Proms Concert. A renowned specialist in the French song repertoire Graham has been honoured by the French Government with their prestigious Commandeur dans l'ordre des Arts et des Lettres. For her Charles Ives disc of the Songs - Concord Sonata on Warner Classics, Susan Graham with pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard won the 2005 Grammy for ‘Best Classical Vocal Performance’.
The opening disc of the set titled ‘Il tenero momento’ contains a selection of twelve opera arias by Mozart and Gluck. In these ‘trouser roles’ Graham displays her undoubted aptitude for the genre. I was impressed by the fine support from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Harry Bicket. From Gluck’s opera Paride ed Elena (1770) I particularly enjoyed Graham’s smooth and expressive rendition of Paride’s aria O del mio dolce ardor bramato oggetto! (Oh, dear object of my sweet passion!). Here the mezzo-soprano easily soars to float like an eagle. With Iphigénie’s aria Non, cet affreux devoir je ne puis le remplir… Je t’implore et je tremble (No, I cannot fulfil this dreadful duty… Trembling, I implore thee) from Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride (1779) Graham demonstrates her wonderful flair for dramatic expression. She is so very comfortable in her high range and excellent under pressure. Of the Mozart scores the most pleasing was Cherubino’s aria Non so più cosa son, cosa faccio (I don’t know what I am, what I’m doing) from The Marriage of Figaro (1786). Graham’s tones are consistently smooth and never in danger of being shrill. I marvelled at her glorious creamy timbre together with splendid diction. This disc of Mozart and Gluck opera arias is another high point of the set. Superbly recorded the crystal clear sound secures an impressive balance between singer and orchestra.
Disc two is an appealing recital titled ‘Susan Graham at Carnegie Hall’ given in 2003. The recital was recorded live with Malcolm Martineau accompanying the mezzo-soprano. The programme comprises a wide-ranging assortment of thirty songs and operetta arias. In the eight song selection from Brahms’s Zigeunerlieder (Gypsy Songs), Op.103 (1887/88) arranged for voice and piano I especially enjoyed the contrasting character of the final two songs. In Kommt dir manchmal in den Sinn, mein süßes Lieb (Do you sometimes remember, my sweet) the tender rendering borders on the melancholy and in Rote Abendwolken ziehn am Firmament (Red evening clouds drift in the sky) one is aware of the score’s robust and determined character. From Debussy’s Proses lyriques (Lyrical Prose) setting his own verse from 1892/93 the first song De rêve (About a dream) is the pick of the crop; sung with such tenderness and expression. The interpretation just radiates colour and benefits from superb piano accompaniment. Sad and emotional De fleurs (About flowers) is a most affecting song with the soloist conveying suggestions of vulnerability. Technically excellent, Martineau manages to play so slowly towards the conclusion yet stops short of grinding to a halt. Graham delivers a brisk and summery rendition of De soir (About evening) that feels remarkably uplifting. Of Berg’s splendid set Sieben Frühe Lieder (Seven Early Songs) from 1905/08 I enjoyed immensely the atmospheric and colourful Nacht (Night), the song Die Nachtigall (The Nightingale) reaches dramatic heights from a tender platform and the Liebesode (Ode to love) just exudes passion and romance. Another performance to cherish is Graham’s interpretation of Hahn’s 1913 pastoral song setting À Chloris (To Chloris) to a text by Théophile de Viau which serves as homage to the Baroque. We hear magnificent heartfelt singing of the impressive vocal line from Graham and exceptional accompaniment from Martineau. The Mahler song the serious Liebst du um Conceit (If you love for beauty) is the last of his cycle of Five Rückert Lieder from 1901/2. Sung here with dedication and immense passion this is a fine achievement that the audience clearly greatly appreciated. In this live recording Graham explains from the stage that this is the first time that she and Martineau have performed the song together. The final song of the disc is the New York premiere of Sexy Lady written especially for Susan Graham by Ben Moore in 2001. Bright and amusing this exuberant cabaret song with elements of the pastiche receives rapturous applause.
Released with the title Poèmes de l'amour soon after winning her Grammy for ‘Best Classical Vocal Performance’ the third disc consists of orchestral song-cycles by composers: Chausson, Ravel and Claude Debussy/John Adams. Susan Graham recorded them in 2004 at London’s Maida Vale studios with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Yan Pascal Tortelier. Generously mellow and densely atmospheric these orchestral songs generally inhabit a similar sound-world. They are all about mood-painting and Graham reigns supreme here. Technically the mezzo-soprano never seems challenged and the songs suit her tessitura splendidly.
Chausson’s Poème de l’amour et de la mer (Poem of Love and of the Sea) to a Maurice Bouchor text was composed in 1882/92. At times the orchestral accompaniment to the song La Fleur des beaux (The Flower of the waters) reminded me of Elgar’s Sea Pictures, Op. 37. it is evocative of a gently swaying boat anchored in a quiet bay. On occasions the sea breeze picks up and in a squall the water becomes increasingly choppy as if anticipating the onset of a storm. Wind instruments and strings blend together to create a soft mellow quality for the short orchestral Interlude. Generally warm and sultry the song La Mort de l’amour (The death of love) is an atmospheric and romantic nocturne convincingly suggestive of a shimmering seascape. Graham expertly conveys the contrasting moods that range from severe tension to intense passion.
Ravel wrote the seductive Shéhérazade in 1903 to three poems by his Parisian friend Tristan Klingsor, a pseudonym of the poet Léon Leclère. With a humid and almost stifling atmosphere all three songs easily evoke the sound, sight and smells of Eastern exoticism.
Le Livre de Baudelaire (The Book of Baudelaire) by Debussy is one of his early works. The songs are taken from Debussy’s settings of his Cinq poèmes de Charles Baudelaire (The five poems of Charles Baudelaire) after French poet Charles Baudelaire's collection Les fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil). Originally composed in 1887/89 for solo piano these four settings were orchestrated by John Adams in 1993. A fifth song La mort des amants is not included here. I especially enjoyed Graham’s delightful rendition of the song Le Jet d’eau (The fountain) together with its light and affectionate orchestral accompaniment. Calm and gently rocking with a slight melancholic tinge the support from the BBC Symphony Orchestra is outstanding in the final song Recueillement (Meditation).
French operetta arias is the theme of disc four. It offers a total of seventeen works by Moisés Simons, André Messager, Maurice Yvain, Arthur Honegger and Reynaldo Hahn. Here I was struck just how supremely talented the composer’s André Messager and Reynaldo Hahn are in this genre. This disc was titled ‘C'est ça la vie, c'est ça l'amour: French Operetta Arias’ on its release. Recorded in 2001 in Birmingham, England, Graham is given sterling orchestral support from the CBSO under Yves Abel. The following songs are notable. From the Moïses Simons’ operetta Toi c'est moi (You are me) fun and entertainment abound in the excellent Latin-infused song C’est ça la vie, c’est ça l’amour! (That’s life, that’s love!). Messager’s song J’ai deux amants (I have two lovers) from L’amour masqué comes across as operatic in the late-romantic Italian style of Puccini. Graham gives a delightful performance in Messager’s Ô mon bel inconnu (O My Handsome Stranger) from the operetta of the same name. I love the solo violin and clarinet accompaniment. For some reason we are not told the identity of the supporting singers on this track. Messager’s Les hommes sont biens tous les mêmes (Men are all the same) and L’amour est un oiseau rebelle (Love is a rebellious bird), and also Hahn’s Air de la Lettre (Letter aria) are typically light-hearted and wonderfully uplifting. I was struck by the mournful cello part in Messager’s splendid Mon rêve (My dream) from L'Amour Masqué (Masked love) and I especially enjoyed the melodic and delightfully stirring final song Vagabonde (Roaming) from Moisés Simons’ Toi c'est moi (You are me). In spite of the generally slight nature of these charming operetta arias Graham displaying her noted generous affection maintains total involvement.
A collection of twenty-four opera arias and songs from several recordings make up the contents of the fifth disc from the composers George Frideric Handel, Hector Berlioz, Charles Ives and Jake Heggie. Susan Graham’s performances of seventeen songs by Charles Ives won her a Grammy in 2004 for ‘Best Classical Vocal Performance’. The award-winning disc was coupled with the Ives Concord Sonata played by Pierre-Laurent Aimard who accompanies Graham here on the Ives songs. The remaining seven songs are taken from other releases and could have been programmed better. Throwing together heavy opera arias by Handel and Berlioz with songs from Charles Ives seems a strange mix that doesn’t sit entirely comfortably.
The two Handel arias were recorded live at the Opéra de Paris Garnier. From Handel’s 1735 opera seria Alcina Susan Graham does not seem comfortable with the technical challenges provided by the aria Di te mi rido (I laugh you to scorn). The Texan bred singer fares better with the aria Mi lusinga il dolce affetto (My tender passion bewitches me) delivering a delightfully tender and affecting interpretation. Here William Christie directs the impressive period instrument chamber orchestra Les Arts Florissants with subtlety and a natural feeling for the music.
From the Berlioz’s 1846 dramatic legend The Damnation of Faust Marguerite’s aria Autrefois un roi de Thule (Once upon a time, a King of Thule) is an atmospheric piece beautifully sung and performed. It would be remiss not to mention the impressive support from Kent Nagano and the Orchestre de l’Opéra de Lyon. Noteworthy are the low strings that play splendidly throughout. No details are given of the recording venue. Beatrice’s beautiful air Dieu! Que viens-je d’entendre? (Heavens! What have I just heard?) from Berlioz’s 1862 comic opera Beatrice and Benedict demands broad emotional contrasts from the performer. Adroitly performed by the New Mexican-born singer who demonstrates her innate aptitude for theatre and characterisation. On this song the Orchestre de l’Opéra de Lyon is conducted by John Nelson. We are not told where this performance was recorded.
The highlight of the disc and of the whole set is the award-winning collection of seventeen Charles Ives songs that Susan Graham recorded with pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard in 2003 at the Vienna Konzerthaus. Varied in style, expression and length these songs, a treasure trove of invention and discovery, are well worth getting to know. I enjoyed the Ives setting of his own text The Things Our Fathers Loved (1917) where the gentle mood is broken only by the weightier central section. Occupying a dreamy sound-world the beautiful 1921 setting The Housatonic at Stockbridge of a Robert Underwood Johnson text builds to a robust closing section. In the Louis Untermeyer setting Swimmers from 1915 Graham paints a squally quality that together with the more aggressive rhythms adroitly depicts a storm at sea. Another setting of the composer’s own words Memories (A—Very Pleasant, B — Rather Sad) from 1897 begins upbeat, jolly and humorous and even includes some whistling. From 0:34 the mood changes drastically to one of calm, tinged with melancholy.
Extremely brief and quirky the Maurice Morris setting Ann Street from 1921 illustrates the street of the same name in New York City and contains a couple of barked announcements by a male voice. To a text from Czech poet Adolf Heyduk (translated N. Macfarren) Songs My Mother Taught Me (1895) is a splendid example of Graham’s consummate ability to convey peaceful and soft textures. Of a convincing carnival atmosphere the joyous Ives setting of his own text The Circus Band (1894) just struts along without a care in the world. I found the yearning Ives setting from 1921 ‘A sound of a distant horn’ rather comforting. By contrast September the brief and strident 1920 Rossetti setting (after Folgore da San Geminiano) contains traces of the austere. The absorbing Ives 1907 setting of his own text Soliloquy (or A Study in Sevenths and Other Things) exudes tenderness, bordering on the serene, quickly developing a degree of dissonance. Containing an infusion of rugged power a distinct nostalgic quality envelops the song A Farewell to Land (1909) to a Lord Byron text. The final Ives song is Thoreau a 1915 setting of his own verse with the soloist narrating the first forty seconds. So typical of Ives this is an achingly tender and wistful score.
All three Jake Heggie arias are extracts from his first opera Dead Man Walking (1998/2000). The libretto by Terrence McNally is based on Sister Helen Prejean's successful 1993 book Dead Man Walking which draws attention to the campaign for the abolition of capital punishment. I recall the 1995 Tim Robbins film version of Dead Man Walking starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. Featuring Susan Graham as the nun Sister Helen this live recording is taken from the 2000 premiere run of the opera at the War Memorial Hall Opera House, San Francisco with the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus under Patrick Summers. The first aria This journey to Christ from act one inhabits eclectic territory over a bed of rich orchestral writing that reminded me of a Nino Rota film score. From act two Who will walk with me? is interesting and has a generally sultry and exotic quality. I was struck by the forceful performance of Graham in He will gather us around from act one. This is an a cappella piece that has a slight feel of a Negro spiritual.
The sixth and final disc in the box is a collection of thirty-two songs by American composer Ned Rorem recorded in 1999 at the Teldec Studios in Berlin. The ‘Songs of Ned Rorem’ was released in 2000 by Susan Graham with Malcolm Martineau as her piano accompanist together with the Ensemble Oriol appearing on a couple of the songs. I enjoyed Graham’s warmly atmospheric interpretation of Sonnet - an appealing setting of a Witter Bynner verse from the fourth set of Rorem’s Santa Fe Songs (1980). Undoubtedly the inclusion of both the piano and strings makes a significant contribution to the success of the score. In the 1963 setting of the much used Lord Alfred Tennyson poem Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal I enjoyed Graham’s convincing and expressive feeling for the glorious text. With the setting of the well known verse by Stephen Foster Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair the mezzo performs with utmost care and confidence. Mainly located in her upper registers the attractive Ode: Je te salue, heureuse Paix (1953) uses a Pierre de Ronsard text. Graham sings this attractive song with generous affection and a profound assurance. I wasn’t expecting the spiky rhythms of the early song setting Alleluia (1946). To a Walt Whitman text I enjoyed the soft and gentle character of Look Down, Fair Moon (1957) with its contrasting central section of increased weight and intensity. In Far-Far-Away (1963) an Alfred Tennyson setting notable are the interesting changes of space and rhythms. Also impressive is the Walt Whitman setting Sometimes with One I Love (1957) for its yearning quality and suggestions of austerity. The 1947 setting of Robert Frost’s verse Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening is given a soft and tender rendition containing a convincingly fresh outdoors feel. From 1963 the setting That Shadow, My Likeness a Walt Whitman text is sung by Graham with a slow and sultry character and long vocal lines.
Susan Graham has an enthusiastic international following and this impressive six disc set should not disappoint her fans. She certainly possesses an exceptional talent for communicating songs. This coupled with a smooth and creamy timbre. A tendency to roll her Rs will prove an annoying mannerism for many. At times though she sounds a touch jaded in songs that do not provide her with sufficient variety of texture and expression. One or two of these place a harsh test on her lowest registers. Graham seems at her most comfortable in the mid to top of her range.
There is an interesting little essay on Susan Graham in the booklet. Sadly no texts are provided. So once again a major record company presents a considerable vocal collection where the purchaser is allowed to hear the sound of the words but not to understand their meaning. In addition there is virtually no background information about any of the works contained in the set.
Works on This Recording
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