Véronique Gens, Middle Temple Hall, London – review

A week ago Finnish soprano Karita Mattila left the audience at her Wigmore Hall recital gasping for breath in the interval, following a hair-raising, first-half assault on an unsuspecting selection of French mélodies, which was more like going over the top in battle with all guns blazing.

After that, balm was needed. Temple Music has been running a song recital series in historic Middle Temple Hall for a few years now, offering the opportunity to encounter international recital singers at close quarters in the imposing surroundings of the Elizabethan hall, and the latest was the French soprano Véronique Gens.

It can only have been a coincidence that her programme covered the same ground so closely. Here were the same Duparc songs, leading to the hot-house eroticism of “Phidylé”, and even the same short cycle by Poulenc – his highly varied Banalités, which includes the buoyant “Voyage à Paris” and often-performed “Hôtel”, lazily fading away as the singer lies back to enjoy a smoke.

It was hard to believe these were the same songs that Mattila had sung a week earlier. As a native French speaker, Gens sets out with the obvious advantage that she is at home with the rhythm and sounds of the language, so that the conversational Poulenc settings spoke to the audience with pace and clarity; but she also pitched the scale of her performances perfectly for this repertoire and the size of the hall (Mattila, singing at full throttle and with pounding piano accompaniments, left barely a word audible).

This was a recital of calm assurance. Gens has a warm, lyric soprano, much admired in Mozart opera roles, and uses it to fine effect as a recitalist, even if she is not the most challenging of interpreters. Everything tends to come out rather the same, so that her Poulenc sometimes lacked edge and Duparc’s “Phidylé” was low-key in its eroticism (think of the electricity Janet Baker used to bring to the hushed scene-setting of the opening stanza). But almost every song was satisfying as far as it went, Gens always a model of French elegance, her accompanist Julius Drake fully supportive, if just occasionally heavy-handed. The much-needed balm was duly delivered.


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