Christiane Karg and Joseph Middleton play Debussy, Satie and Wagner at Howard Assembly Room 26 January 2018

Charles Eager enjoys a brief but dazzling recital of songs, known and less well known, making for a pleasantly eclectic evening.

There were not many disappointments to be had at this very fine concert, but the first must have been when I learned that Christiane Karg has no connection whatsoever to Dr. Karg’s delicious crispbread. As well-meaning but ultimately futilely employed friends have advised me in their letters of consolation, this did not have much bearing on the concert; but it is always nice to think of two admired figures as in some way connected. Alas, it was not to be on this occasion, and so I tried to focus on the music without a thought of crispbread.

The great strength of the concert was in Karg’s programming of brief, starkly contrasted song cycles. This she explained to us before commencing the second half of the programme: We began with Debussy’s gorgeous, sultry and even solemn settings of the rhapsodic melancholia of Baudelaire. From there we moved on to an utterly different world—of sound, of conception of what ‘song’ is, of musical influence—in four songs by Satie. In the second half, we enjoyed Debussy’s settings of Verlaine, whose poetry is more austere perhaps, more restrained, but not a whit less vital than the Baudelaire’s, before moving on to Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder, the point of such a programme being to highlight the colossal influence which Wagner wrought on Debussy, which comes out more strongly in his declamatory and operatic songs perhaps than anywhere else in Debussy’s oeuvre, including his opera Pélleas et Mélisande!

Satie was there to show how eccentric Debussy’s Wagnerianism was in his time and milieu. But is Satie—hardly a bastion of normalcy himself—really the man to show up the eccentricity of anyone? Perhaps the eccentricity of all of us, but nothing more specific than that. The concert was, overall, a little briefer than most: perhaps a short song cycle by Ravel, Chabrier, D’Indy, or some such, could have helped to bring out the intense sense of historical period which Karg was attempting. Nevertheless, whatever however necessarily brief in its overview of the epoch the programme may be, it nonetheless proved a great snapshot of the nexus of these three—really, very different—composers.

On the way out at the interval, I heard several audience members agreeing on ‘how wonderful it is to hear good French for a change’. True: even in a Lieder saturated city such as Leeds is lucky to be, German far outstrips all other languages in regularity of performance, with English lagging behind, and Italian, French, Czech, and so on, hardly to be seen or heard. When one thinks of how rich and astonishingly beautiful the canon of French chanson is, one can only grieve at its underrepresentation, and praise Karg—whose French pronunciation was beyond reproach, and indeed, was even better than her German (despite her being German!)—for inviting it back to the stage.

As the glorious harmonies of the Debussy unfold, and the sombre, almost monodic melodies furl around the (always more active) piano part—showing which instrument really interested the composer most: no matter how fine his vocal writing, Debussy is a composer for the piano first—the poetry of Baudelaire is left, as in all the greatest songs, to radiate around the hall for our contemplation. We are collectively moved, I sense, by his rhapsodic listing: ‘valse melancholique, et langeroux vertige’ (translated in our programme as ‘reeling languor’), and painting of emotion onto landscape: ‘Le ciel est triste et beau comme un grand reposoir’ (‘the sky is sad and lovely like a great altar’), with Debussy’s music slowing on ‘reposoir’ to reflect the seriousness, peace, and sanctity of the image. Throughout, the composer shows a reverent love for the poet’s words, and this devotion communicates itself well in Karg and Middleton’s performances. Apart from one brief moment of raspiness, every song was executed perfectly.

The Satie moved the programme into an utterly different mood: the first song, ‘Les Anges’, retained Debussy’s solemnity, but arrived at it by the opposite means: whereas Debussy used a hugely thick (i.e., Wagnerian) texture and harmony, full of fantastical counterpoint, Satie gave to the piano about as transparent a part as possible, in a style similar to his famous and much loved Gymnopédies. The rhythms, too, were far more explicit than in the subtle interweavings of Debussy. In Satie’s use of space, every detail of Karg’s voice was on display: a terrifying thing for the less experienced singer, who rather likes a piano to hide behind, but Karg approached the challenge coolly and competently. The next song, ‘Je te veux’, was a joyfully flippant waltz with a sweet, sentimental melody. This song approaches popular fin de siècle song with irony but also (it seems) with genuine love. The song concludes with a few spoken lines, the surprise of which caused audible laughs in the audience, but which was definitely welcomed and encouraged by Karg, who chewed the scenery somewhat in acting it out, making for a great piece of showmanship and entertainment.

The third song, ‘Spleen’, was so short, it barely existed. The last, ‘Le Diva de l’Empire’, was, as you might guess, a delightful story about an English girl, and which switched between French and English idioms to our great joy and surprise, as both performers and audience enjoyed its hilarious cabaret style. The refrain—‘Et tous les Dandys | de Piccadilly’—was a joy. So ended the first half: a little short for such great music-making: but if that is one’s harshest criticism, it was then quite a good show.

The second half was perhaps not as joyous as the first, since Debussy and Wagner together hardly make the most cheerful of programmes. Still, the music was as beautiful as before. To the Debussy expert (which I cannot count myself) the differences between the Baudelaire songs and these of Verlaine—the Ariettes Oubliées—must be plain and obvious: I am sure they would become so with the requisite experience. Lacking this, I found the opportunity of Debussy’s ambiguous and cinematic harmony, as well as the parlando quality and close intervals of the vocal part, to naturally invite the contemplation of Verlaine’s poetry, perhaps even rarer than Baudelaire’s.

Moving on to the Wesendonck Lieder, I do wonder why we hear this song cycle so often. Is it because of the fame of the operas that we give more time to these songs? They sound less Wagnerian, indeed, than Debussy’s songs, and I am unsure what to make of them—until, that is, we arrive at Träume, whose beautiful falling seconds are always very touching. But all the same, I cannot help but feel that, having heard Wagner with an orchestra, Wagner without an orchestra seems like a man who hated limitations struggling. The poetry is mixed, but in Träume, a sense of grandeur and vastness—Allvergessen, Eingedenken—shines through the occasional cliché. Again, the performance is virtually perfect, save for a couple of forced consonants here and there (a heavy f in Duft  and a positively soupy sch in nicht). How strange that Karg excels and sounds more natural in her beloved French more than in her native German!

Karg and Middleton were much loved and applauded by the audience, and were cajoled into an encore: another Debussy song. This went down reasonably well, especially the final joke: that the lady who sings the song, who has been out receiving a flute lesson from Pan, complains that her mother ‘will never believe that I have stayed out so late looking for my lost belt.’ That everyone got this and laughed except for me, says very good things about French education in Leeds, on which I have evidently missed out.  Still, despite that minor injury to my pride, a great time was had by me, and I dare say by everyone else, too. Christiane, you will always be welcome in Leeds, and met with a loving audience.

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