From the beckoning visionary opening of L'Invitation au voyage to the exhalation of cigarette smoke – surely a Gitane – curling away in the final piano notes of Poulenc's Hôtel this was an enticing recital from Christiane Karg and Malcolm Martineau. With the exception of the Duparc, all the pieces dated from the first decades of the 20th century and was proof of Karg's musical diversity, in a journey of discovery both in the poetic imagination and the composers' range of styles and influences.

Christiane Karg © Gisela Schenker
Christiane Karg
© Gisela Schenker

The opening of the Duparc rippled diaphanously in Martineau's hands as the seductive but pure silver of Karg's voice, with subtly textured undertones, invited the listener into a world of “luxe, calme et volupté”, richly fulfilled in the programme ahead.

In Franco's Spain performances of works by Jesús Guridi in his native Basque were banned but the Castillian settings of Seis canciones castellanas to traditional verses were permitted. A noted composer of zarzuela and folk-inspired works, the Spanish motifs were reminiscent of Granados and De Falla. Sung by Karg with dramatic characterisation, mixing raillery and sensuality, she was matched in rhythmic flair by Martineau. 

From the Greek-style melodies of Ravel's Cinq mélodies populaires grecques, with a particularly teasing Quel galant m'est comparable? to the classically poised formality of the Études latines set exquisitely by the cosmopolitan Reynaldo Hahn, Karg and Martineau distilled the Belle Époque essence of these exotic locations and ages with finely judged tone and phrasing.

A particular rarity was a selection from Koechlin's Shéhérazade, to verses by the evocatively named poet, Tristan Klingsor. The sinuous arabesques and oriental colours were at once familiar from Ravel's setting, and the wide-ranging chromaticsm and free musical structure evoked an intoxicating atmosphere of myrrh and ambergris. Koechlin's music, at times reaching into atonality, was given a probing account, where Karg's security of intonation and verbal acuity led the listener into a world far removed from the standard exoticsm and theatrical effects of some earlier French composers. The final line of Le Voyage was delivered by Karg in a wisp of tone left hanging ambiguously in the dreamlike air: “Et le plus beau voyage est celui fait en rêve” making one wish to hear more from this work.

After this heady world, Poulenc's settings of Apollinaire brought us back to the world of dreary provincial cities – hopefully not London – and the longing to return to “Paris joli”, by way of the foggy absurdities of Hyde Park and Montparnasse before that final nostalgic lingering cigarette. Karg and Martineau caught perfectly the cabaret bitter-sweetness and gaiety.

Karg gave one encore, which she introduced. Praising Ravel's curiosity and openess to other cultures, she asked the audience to be similarly curious and open-minded in our lives, going forward. She then sang the Kaddish from Ravel's Deux Mélodies Hébraiques, her intense almost keening tone aptly fitting this mourning prayer.

With several Proms first performances, this was a boldy planned recital and Christiane's Karg's musical intelligence and beautifully expressive voice, idiomatically accompanied by Malcolm Martineau, made for an auspicious Proms debut.

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