There were quite a few empty seats in the Concertgebouw’s recital hall last Monday, which is quite strange for a recital by such a renowned singer. Perhaps the reason was a quirk in the week’s schedule: another Lieder recital, with a famous baritone, followed the next evening. Perhaps the program of English and French songs did not appeal to a public that, although it will never willingly admit to it, has traditionally rather more Germanic taste. Perhaps the public did not trust that an artist who is generally labelled as a Baroque specialist – she sang  Vaugas in Vivaldi’s Juditha triumphans and Ginevra in Handel’s Ariodante to great acclaim in this same hall – would pull such a daring program off. Whatever the reason was, les absents ont toujours tort, and the audience was a treated to a delightful evening.

Karina Gauvin © Michael Slobodian
Karina Gauvin
© Michael Slobodian
The very diverse program consisted of a selection of songs, in the English language for the first part of the concert and in French for the second, spanning some two and a half centuries. Addressing the public directly from the stage at the beginning of the performance, Karina Gauvin explained that she had wanted this selection to reflect her very wide taste in music. Undoubtedly referring to her reputation as a Baroque opera specialist, she titled this program her “secret garden”.

More even than the contrast in style and language, it was the contrast in mood between each song that made this program a very enjoyable journey. Ms Gauvin visibly enjoyed switching mood with each carefully chosen piece, sounding in turn chillingly arresting in The Spirit song (Haydn), serenely romantic in Silent Noon (Vaughan Williams) and  humorously rugged in The Dodger (Copland).  The comical I got me a cat by Aaron Copland earned her laughter as well as applause from the public at the end of the first part of the concert.

The French part of the concert, after the break, started with Debussy. The melancholic spell of Beau soir was somewhat broken by Noël des enfant qui n’ont plus de maison, a patriotic protest song against the war Debussy wrote in 1915, which I personally found uninspired and the only odd choice of the evening. But the Cinq mélodies populaires grecques by Ravel that followed were enchanting in their exoticism. The four rarely-performed songs by Bizet that ended the program, almost operatic in style, were my favourite as I found they showed off Ms Gauvin’s vocal qualities at their best: a round and warm timbre, sensual and utterly seductive in the exotic Adieu de l’hôtesse arabe, with impeccable coloratura in the Spanish-inspired Guitare. Here again, the French-Canadian soprano conveyed each piece’s mood vividly.

Throughout the evening, Ms Gauvin was superbly accompanied at the piano by Maciej Pikulski, who seemed just as much at ease with the reflective melody of Debussy’s Nuits d’étoiles as with Bizet’s castanets in Ouvre ton Coeur. She talked warmly about their joint performance as a duet.

Keen to share her passion, she addressed the audience several times during the evening to introduce each section with a short explanation or personal anecdote, creating a charming rapport. Between the final rounds of applause, her last gift to an enthusiastic audience was Poulenc’s famous Les Chemins de l’Amour.