We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Monday, May 20, 2019


Mark Markham and Stéphane Sénéchal

Presented by the Art Song Preservation Society (founded and directed by Blair Boone-Migura), was a brilliant recital by French tenor Stéphane Sénéchal and collaborative pianist Mark Markham. The recital was part of a 10-day festival
of master classes and recitals held at the Manhattan School of Music, an annual event.

This was a very special recital and one marked by the revelation of true French technique passed down from father Michel (the legendary late character tenor who knew Francis Poulenc) to son. What an experience to hear French music sung by a tenor of great artistry--to hear it as it is meant to be sung. One could consider the recital to be a lesson in the art of singing French mélodies.

The composers represented on the program comprised many of the greats of the 19th and early 20th c.--Reynaldo Hahn, Henri Duparc, Claude Debussy, Francis Poulenc, Gabriel Fauré, Charles Gounod, and even Jacques Offenbach who contributed the encore piece.

Instead of performing a set by each composer, Mr. Sénéchal mixed them up and seemed to stick with one theme for each set. For example the first set comprised songs dealing with love and romance. Who can do that better than the French! We confess to being hypnotized.

Reynaldo Hahn's "À Chloris" is very familiar to us but we have never heard it sung with such intense feeling, achieved with delicacy and refinement. A lovely pianissimo cresendoed to a passionate fortissimo. This tenor makes his dynamic changes count by using them sparingly.

In Henri Duparc's "Extase" his coloration reflected the underlying Wagnerian harmonic shifts, something that we've heard about but never actually heard. Claude Debussy's "Zéphyr" was downright erotic; Gabriel Fauré's "Après un rêve" offered an opportunity for melismatic singing that reinforced the coloration of the word at the end of a phrase--"mirage", "lumière", "mensonges" and "mystérieuse".

A second set of mélodies seemed to focus on loss. Most of Fauré's works are little gems but "La Chanson du pêcheur" took its time to develop the theme of loss of the beloved by means of death. In Théophile Gautier's poem, the fisherman ends each verse of lament with the intention of going to sea. We wondered if "going to sea" was a metaphor. Mr. Markham's piano was particularly effective in adding to the despair.

There were even more treasures in the second half of the program; we particularly enjoyed Fauré's "Ici-bas" which filled us with sorrow as the artists concluded with an affecting decrescendo, tapering off to a fine filament of sound hanging in the air. In Duparc's "Lamento" the chords in the piano underscored the mournful sentiment.

There were also several songs by Poulenc on the program. The texts he chose seem obscure to us and less direct. Although he is not our favorite French composer, we will say that we enjoyed his pieces more yesterday than we ever have.  It's just that irony is not our favorite; we prefer music that evokes emotions, not ideas. We don't listen to music in order to think, to puzzle out the intent. We listen to feel.

Fortunately, the final work on the program relieved all that sorrow and left us feeling cheerful. It was Charles Gounod's "Viens! Les gazons sont verts!" in which a youth wants his beloved to wake up and enjoy la belle nature with him. As if that were not enough, there was an encore from Jacques Offenbach's operetta La Périchole in which Piquillo complains about his wife's behavior.

Thinking about the recital and why it was so exceptional, our conclusion is that Mr. Sénéchal doesn't "perform". Instead, it seems as if he is improvising. We suppose that every facial expression and gesture has been considered but it doesn't appear that way. There is a spontaneity that feels as if he is inhabiting the world of the song and sharing it with his audience, drawing us into a world.  He is a consummate storyteller. Mr. Markham was with him every step of the way. It was a landmark recital.

(c) meche kroop

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