Véronique Gens, long an opera star famed for her Gluck and Mozart roles, also performs worldwide as a recitalist with Susan Manoff in French song. Their album Néère won a Gramophone Award in 2016 and their debut at the Oxford Lieder Festival brought a selection of the same repertoire. The Festival theme this year is “The Grand Tour” so tonight we could visit France and leave out the Lieder.

Véronique Gens
© Franck Juery

There were some intriguing cross-references in the programming. We heard two "Mignon" songs – French versions of Goethe’s lieder Kennst du das Land? – neither of which resembled the settings by Schubert, Schumann or Wolf – and two "lilac" poems by Chausson. But in this large repertoire, often based on the greatest 19th-century French poets, such connections are innumerable. Gounod and Massenet, whom we think of as mainly opera composers, each wrote over 200 mélodies. Gounod has been claimed as the father of French song, and it was with him that we began.

There are rare occasions when you know from the first phrase that it could be a special night. Gens’ soprano, familiar as Alceste or Elvira across the orchestra pit, sounds ideal also for the recital room – in this case, a converted church. It is a beautiful sound, of course, but there is also a confiding manner, born of the mélodie style in which we could almost be hearing speech. This arises sometimes from the way vocal phrases relate freely to the piano part, but also from Gens’ diction and regard for the text, and Manoff’s obvious empathy. Even in a forte climax, clarity and control in voice and piano were retained. In Gounod’s Le Soir and Mignon there was a hint of spinto power - yet kept in scale for the mélodie. St John’s acoustic has just enough reverberation to impart bloom but not obscure detail. Gens, however, cannot have spent many evenings in an English provincial church in late October, as she was rubbing her bare arms towards the end of the first half.

The duo certainly generated warmth by musical means as the first half progressed. In Gounod’s Viens, les gazons sont vert ("Come, the lawns are green") the lines "Suis-moi, vive et gentille! Pieds nus, viens!" ("Follow me, quickly and sweetly! Barefoot, come!") were delivered with breathless ardour through expert breath control in a hairpin dynamic: there seems to be no vocal colour or technical aspect of this art that Gens does not possess. In Chausson’s La chanson bien douce we are told of that "sweetest song": "Elle est discrète, elle est légère, un frisson d’eau sur de la mousse" ("It is discreet, it is delicate, a shiver of water on moss") which also describes Gens’ silvery sound and whispered intimacy at that moment. The same composer’s Le temps des lilas produced a shattering climax at "Notre fleur d’amour est si bien fanée" ("Our flower of love has so much faded"), followed by a sorrowing fade-out in the final verse. Inexpressible sadness sadly expressed, not least by Manoff, whose affinity with singer and repertoire seemed complete.

In the second half, Duparc and Hahn maintained the enchantment, producing one polished jewel after another, from Duparc’s glorious L’invitation au voyage and La vie antérieure (an especially poetic postlude from Manoff), to those Hahn settings of Leconte de Lisle where Montmartre seemingly borders Attica (Néère, Lydé, Pholoé, Phyllis). Here was singing and playing to live long in the memory. The final group came from Offenbach, whose composing skill led him to be nicknamed (surely ironically) the Mozart of the Champs-Élysées. An odd choice perhaps, since they suffer from comparison to every song we had heard, and to the best Offenbach.

But Gens has said: “French songs have this kind of subtle, soft melancholy which is peculiar to the genre. At the same time, it's music that speaks to everyone… I think we shouldn't just sing French vocal music, we should have fun with it.” And have fun with Offenbach she did, drawing on her stage experience and comically acting, as well as singing, these fables of La Fontaine. It was still a surprise that this great singer, whose art often has an appealing hauteur, had this too in her range. It was just right for Offenbach’s ditties, which after an evening of deeply satisfied sighs from the audience, produced some laughter.

Madame Gens introduced their encore in English: “A French song recital without Fauré, it is impossible, no?” and that master’s Les Roses d’Ispahan, Op39 no.4, another setting of Leconte de Lisle, made an idyllic close. Then we donned our cloaks, and strolled to our carriages waiting on the gas-lit boulevard in the Parisian night. Ah no - it was still Oxford in 2018 – yet while these incomparable performances still rang in our ears, the belle époque held us in thrall.