Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Viardot reborn

Last night I attended an extraordinary concert staged by Opera Rara and Prima Donna Productions at the Wigmore Hall: a programme with narration by Fanny Ardent about the life and music of Pauline Viardot, the great mezzo-soprano who inspired everyone from Chopin to Berlioz to Turgenev, whose lover she may or may not have been (this account, twinkle in eye, suggested the former). It was quite a marathon, starring three stunning singers: fabulous dramatic soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci, classic Russian bass Vladimir Chernov and the legendary Frederica von Stade, as radiant as ever and in fine form at 60 - remarkably, it was her very first appearance at the Wigmore.

The narration, written by Georgia Smith, was witty, informative and sensitive, even if Ardent didn't always sound comfortable speaking in English. If you're in Paris, try to catch the same concert at the Chatelet tomorrow, 1 March, presumably in French - it may go with a little more pizzazz. But the real star was Viardot's music. I've heard a number of her songs before, but many of yesterday's were new to me - heavens, they're beautiful! The variety is astonishing - she set poems in four or five languages, including Russian; and the warmth, melodic flow, drama, sensitivity to words and imaginative flair mean that, programmed alongside her admirers Gounod and Berlioz (his gorgeous La Captive, for mezzo-soprano, cello and piano) and her friend Chopin, her music more than holds its own. For me, top spot was the gorgeous Die Sterne, again with cello: breathtaking lyricism and a profound soul shone out of it.

Viardot has been a special interest of mine for a few years, but until now, I must admit, mostly because I adore Turgenev. I wrote a piece trailing this concert for the Indy which was in last week (read it here), but came away from the event itself feeling I'd discovered a new dimension to a story I thought I knew. This concert wasn't merely a rare music faction trying to convince us that second-rate music is worth hearing. Instead, it revealed a composer of real genius.

Opera Rara recorded the concert live and the CD will be released in due course. Grab it when you can and hear these unsuspected wonders for yourself.

UPDATE: 3 March 2006 - read The Independent's review by Robert Maycock here.