mon 22/07/2024

Sandrine Piau, Les Talens Lyriques, Wigmore Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Sandrine Piau, Les Talens Lyriques, Wigmore Hall

Sandrine Piau, Les Talens Lyriques, Wigmore Hall

Rarely heard religious poetry set by Purcell with astonishing beauty

Sandrine Piau: 'A heaven-sent vocal quality, as decorative, light-emitting and warblingly sunny as birdsong'

Who was a greater composer of words: Schubert or Purcell? A toss-up, I think, after a revelatory concert at the Wigmore Hall by Les Talens Lyriques with the French soprano Sandrine Piau on Saturday. The sheer quality of the poetry Purcell set in his Harmonia Sacra, collections of “divine hymns and dialogues”, is both profound and emotionally direct: “Lord, what is man?”, “In the black, dismal dungeon of despair”, “Music, for a while”...

But it was a faintly contrary experience, delivered by a French singer whose English articulation did not quite coagulate as meaningful language, despite the beguiling sensuality of the experience.

Piau, a regular collaborator with Les Talens Lyriques on Handel, in particular, has a heaven-sent quality of voice, it’s as decorative, light-emitting and warblingly sunny as birdsong, beaming an array of colours with notes that can start plain, instantly swell and fill up with trembling plangency, shake and darken, and then drift off into nothing, a fascinating musical calligraphy. Now 45, she cuts a willowy, gamine figure, slightly Audrey Tautou, and her body shakes and quivers as she sings, her right hand crooked and jabbing the air at her side. The obvious physical effort translates into nightingale singing that scoops and thrills, soars and rasps resinously - to listen to, it is a transfixing textural experience of what a superbly pliable and finessed high soprano can do.

But it was not, at heart, profoundly moving. This is music rarely contemplated now, its purpose serious and high-minded, with a spiritual rigour in the poetry that is a literary genre of its own. Words above all matter, to etch those bleak images of doubt and faith, all the decoration of the music homing in on enhancing these writers, men lost in the darkness, searching for a great light. For all her fastidious diction, Piau was somehow unintelligible, cleaving more to musical matters than verbal. Her vowels and consonants were right, yet they failed to convey consistent meaning, the words obscured by the exquisite undergrowth of vocal mannerisms surrounding them.

The poetry, after all, is what Purcell was concerned with supporting. “Lord, what is man?” was written by William Fuller, a bishop prostrate with the agony of guilt on behalf of all the unworthy men for whom Christ died. He and George Herbert are sinners and penitents, penning forceful, distilled verses in a private communion with their God, which Purcell turned into some powerfully dramatic but never secular music. The emotional communicativeness of Dido and Aeneas is all here too in this more intellectualised area of the soul, the unafraid way that his vocal line darts, declaims, sighs and pauses, with piercingly exact expression and response.

elizabeth_kenny_lutePiau and the three players from Les Talens Lyriques are sensual music-makers, a band one can imagine dancing to, rather more than praying to. One tastes the musical flavours in their performance, the technical pleasures in exploring sound and the material qualities of musical instruments, and the lightness and motion of music through time. With Christophe Rousset at the harpsichord occasionally moving onto a little organ beside him, Elizabeth Kenny (pictured right) plucking an enormous, deep-toned theorbo with (I think) 14 strings, Laurence Dreyfus on viola da gamba, the four emulsified in gorgeous soft, fibrous sounds far away from the aural perfectionism we live among now. How enjoyable it is to be waylaid by the anomalousness of strings that can shear out of tune while they're being played, the frayed quality of gut, the sympathetic vibration of unused strings.

Still, this was a programme of deeply hued poetry; it demanded to take us on a close and unfamiliar journey into the rigours of belief, and into Purcell’s extraordinarily vivid, spontaneous sympathy with these unquiet feelings. It's serious joy to hear the searching flexibility of the melody in Job's Curse, "Let the night perish". In “With sick and fa-mish’d eyes”, the drama of the vocal makes us squint with those failing eyes, hobble with the doubling knees, and relish that final rhyme of “my breast which cries, which dies”, relishing both its neatness for musical expression and the soberness of its meaning. Purcell's intention was surely not to distract with beauty but to enhance the clarity of the poetry, and in the interval we were talking about the option for a more verbally aware performance approach than Piau's here.

She seemed most unfussily communicative in the one piece unambiguously from a woman's point of view, the terrifically moving portrait of Mary created by Purcell in "Tell me, some pitying angel", an anxious mother leaving her 12-year-old son Jesus behind in the temple, going home alone and wondering doubtfully why the angel has never returned to her since that first shattering prediction of her boy's future. This is a scena of blasting power, the beauty beaming in on emotional understanding.

All the same, I found myself much beguiled by Piau's ornate delivery and the caresses of these instrumentalists’ playing; Baroque singing has travelled far since its rather po-faced, celibate noises of a couple of decades ago. The group showed themselves most instinctively in their final encore, "Music for a while shall all your cares beguile". Beguiling, indeed. But communicative of Purcell’s remarkable genius with words? And of the cares of those fine-minded men of his time? Less so, and that's a pity because such opportunities as these are rare.

Sandrine Piau and Sara Mingardo rehearse their disc of Handel arias and duets with Rinaldo Alessandrini - find it on Amazon:

This was a programme that demanded more: it demanded to take us into intimate, penetrating communication with the poets

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters