As one of the world’s most sought-after soprano in Baroque opera, Karina Gauvin seems to have had less time for the performance of art songs in recent years. In the Dutch capital at least, her latest appearances have all been in operas by Handel or Steffani. It therefore felt an all too rare privilege to hear her and Maciej Pikuski in a programme of art songs in the intimacy of the Concertgebouw’s recital hall. The selection of songs and arias, spanning almost three centuries, felt perhaps too eclectic, their interpretation was throughout of the highest standard.

Karina Gauvin © Michael Slobodian
Karina Gauvin
© Michael Slobodian

It must have felt quite daunting for the Canadian soprano, elegantly dressed in a glittering blue gala dress, to have to start the evening after the dramatic events of 22 March. In a becoming and companionate manner, she started by addressing the audience to dedicate the evening of music to the victims of the Brussels attacks.

Placed at the start of the programme, perhaps as a token of her predilection for Baroque repertoire, or simply as a warm-up and opportunity to assess her audience, the three arias by Scarlatti sounded promising but seemed almost anecdotal compared to the exquisite cycle that followed. Ariettes oubliées (Forgotten songs), a song cycle composed by Claude Debussy on poems by Paul Verlaine, was the highlight of the evening, showing off  Ms Gauvin's accomplished art in conveying a mood at its best. Her voice, warm and iridescent, deployed the subtle palette of colours of an Impressionist painting. Exciting switches in dynamics, from arresting forte to ravishingly evanescent pianissimi, added to the emotion. C’est l’extase balanced between languor and  melancholy. As the piano emulated rain drops falling, one could feel in her tone the sombre emptiness of Il pleut dans mon coeur. The merry-go-round of Chevaux de bois left the listener slightly dizzy and out of breath.

After having been taken through this meandering path of emotion, Lia’s recitative and aria from the cantata L’enfant prodige somewhat broke the spell: although convincingly interpreted, with operatic poise, it remains in its essence an academic curiosity composed for Prix de Rome scholarship, which has little of what makes Debussy’s later music so unique.

After the break, two excerpts from Britten’s Illuminations, strangely interleaved with two other songs, made one wish for more, especially since soprano versions are bizarrely so rare – and this is a particularly luscious soprano. The mood of the evening lightened noticeably with the two French waltzes that followed : the sensuous Je te veux (Satie) and the sentimental Les chemins de l’amour (Poulenc) sang with seamless legato.

The Canadian soprano briefly interrupted the recital to introduce Maciej Pikuski, with whom she has regularly collaborated for the past three years, a much deserved tribute to an attentive accompanist and virtuosic musician. In the songs by Bizet and Delibes which closed the programme, his piano emulated at times the sound of the guitar or beat of castanets. In these exotic espagnoladessome nearly operatic in style and vaguely reminiscent the world of Carmen, Ms Gauvin visibly had some fun at sketching the characters. In Guitare, a song by Bizet inspired by flamenco, her seasoned coloratura did wonders, her arms suggested an arabesque and her heels nearly stamped the floor.