Maurice Ravel is certainly no stranger to the Wigmore Hall stage; despite being known above all as a master orchestrator, his works for solo piano and chamber ensemble remain cornerstones of the repertoire. Pianist Joseph Middleton's residency at Wigmore sees him focusing on Ravel’s songs, which provide an admirable snapshot of his musical development. The exquisite opening programme interspersed Ravel’s most famous vocal works with those of his contemporaries, proving above all an admirable showcase for Mary Bevan, confirming her place as one of today's finest young recitalists. 

Mary Bevan
© Victoria Cadisch

The concert opened with Ravel’s Deux Mélodies hébraïques, given an extra frisson of drama in being sung from the balcony behind the audience. Bevan displayed plenty of drama in Kaddisch, navigating the melismas with fluency and digging into her pungent lower register. L’énigme éternelle proved less effective from this position, the echo of the hall overwhelming the chromatic and textual subtleties of the work. Ravel’s early Épigrammes de Clément Marot proved an ideal contrast to the mysticism and drama of the former work. Based on two poems by the French Renaissance poet, Ravel evokes the past by writing the accompaniment for either piano or harpsichord. Though performed on piano, Middleton captured the poise and clarity of the harpsichord. Baritone Henk Neven’s honeyed baritone would seem an ideal fit for the delicacy of the text; however, his higher register turned tight and swallowed above a mezzo-forte, and was nearly inaudible in his lower register. His account of two songs from Reynaldo Hahn’s Études latines was far more satisfying, beautifully floated. Following the Ravel, though, it was hard not to think of Hahn’s salon pieces as being rather prosaic.

The programme centred around Ravel and Debussy’s competing settings of Stéphane Mallarmé’s poems. Upon publication in 1913, both composers acquired rights to set selected poems to music – to add fuel to the fire, both chose to set Soupir and Placet futile. However, their settings of the same text could hardly be more different, highlighted by Middleton’s decision to juxtapose the two settings. Set for two flutes, two clarinets, and piano quintet, Ravel’s setting is highly orchestral, using a dazzling range of orchestral techniques to highlight Mallarmé’s colourful, multi-layered text. As performed by members of the Aurora Orchestra, conducted by Geoffrey Paterson, the orchestral setting became every bit as integral to the score as the vocal writing, from the arpeggiated string harmonics of Soupir to the rhythmic, almost mechanical precision of the wind writing of Placet futile. In contrast, Debussy’s setting for soprano and piano is less obviously showy, with more formal text setting and highlighting some wonderfully intimate playing from Middleton. The Debussy in particular was an ideal showcase for Bevan, sung with a keen awareness of the text; the final line of Soupir, taken in a single endless breath, was a glorious moment.

Premiered at the same concert was Stravinsky’s Trois poésies de la lyrique japonaise (as was Delage’s Quatres poèmes hindous). Composed for the same instrumental forces, the writing is reminiscent of his Rite of Spring, particularly the woodwind octaves of the opening. The text setting is more Schoenberg than Ravel, with frequent angular leaps and dissonances that seemed outside of Bevan’s comfort zone. She was far happier in Berlioz’s La Captive, revelling in the languid sensuality of the work; however, the Berlioz seemed particularly out of place among the rest of the turn-of-the-century pieces.

The final song cycle on offer was Fauré’s La bonne chanson, given here in its arrangement with piano and string quintet. A cyclical work setting nine poems by Verlaine, Fauré composed the piece as a love letter to Emma Bardac (who later went on to marry Debussy). Though Neven was in better voice than earlier in the evening, he did not provide much contrast tonally or textually between the songs, and the relentless optimism of the work became wearying. Some intonation issues aside, the string quintet played with gloriously rich tone to add some much-needed colour. A rather inconsistent evening, then, but ultimately worth it to see Mary Bevan cement her place in the French repertoire; can we dare hope for a Manon or Mélisande soon?