One must remember that not all classical music is great classical music. While there may have been thousands of talented musicians from the past, only a handful have passed, as Carl Ruggles once noted, “the test of time.” I recall a self-effacing remark by Richard Strauss, something to the effect that, “although I may be a second-rate composer, I’m a first class second-rate composer.” He never considered himself to be the equal of Mozart, Beethoven, or Wagner, probably with justification. So, if a true musical genius like Strauss, who has stood on his own for over a century, is a lesser god, what can be said of the remarkable Pauline Viardot (1821-1910), the notable Romantic chanteuse, pianist, arranger, lover, friend of many great composers, and composer herself of operas, choral pieces, chamber works, and many charmantes pièces caractéristiques for voice? Liszt, who was her teacher at one time, proclaimed her a compositional genius (actually, qualifying that accolade to her: the first of her gender). Tonight’s repertory of songs and arrangements by this protean talent piques interest in our hearing her larger works, but, also, leaves considerable doubt that she was on a par with female geniuses like Clara Schumann-Wieck and Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, who, my estimation, were the equal of any male in a male-dominated art.
For most in attendance at Tannery Pond, that beautiful barn-like space nestled in a Shaker village, tonight’s concert (August 14) was a first exposure to Viardot’s music. American mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux, known mostly for her Baroque and bel-canto performances, seemed the ideal evangelist to make the case for Pauline’s music, or, at least her considerable lyric gifts. Genaux, who is a beauty to behold, has a luscious and full tone, performing these works with great musical and emotional conviction, even when the compositions themselves do not live up to their lavish handling. She has a dark and nasal low register that brings her close in color to that of a contralto. Yet her middle and high registers are clear and bell-like. It was only when she needed projective power that her ensuing mouth-and-jaw vibrato proved to be a tonal blemish. However, Viardot’s writing is so perfectly suited for the mezzo and so effectively constructed for optimal vocal effect that Genaux’s gifts strongly outweighed any shortcomings. I also had the impression that Ms. she might have had some upper respiratory problem; at one point she coughed, and she took many breaks throughout. However, the richness of her lower register and its dark incandescence were so seductive that one remained transfixed during this long and daring recital. Her accompanist, Craig Rutenberg, was a sensitive partner, and his pianism never detracted from the essentially soloist-centric style of Viardot’s works. There were few pianistic pyrotechnics in these works, but, when the rhetoric demanded, Mr. Rutenberg had technical resource in reserve.
Viardot was born Michelle Ferdinande Pauline García to a Spanish family steeped in opera. Her career in music was taken for granted. Her older sister was the great diva Maria Malibran, a legendary musician, whose artistry was coveted by Rossini and Bellini. Pauline’s father, Manuel, was a tenor for whom Rossini wrote the part of Count Almaviva. Pauline and her family travelled throughout Europe and America. Her pianistic skills won the admiration of Liszt, Chopin, and Moscheles, although she abandoned a promising keyboard career to become the family’s operatic legacy when her great sister tragically died after being thrown from a horse. Pauline was also a linguistic prodigy, being fluent in French, Italian, and English by the age of six. Later, she was to become fluent in German and Russian, the last presumably acquired during her liaison with her lover Ivan Turgenev. Pauline had been happily married to Louis Viardot, the successful director of the Théâtre Italien, but her great voice inspired many composers, and her apparent sex appeal never failed to supply her life with affaires de cœur. She lived a long life, and continued to inspirit later composers like Camille Saint-Saëns (who wrote the part of Delilah for her) and Gabriel Fauré.
Most of the 20 or so songs were genre-laden; one could imagine subtitles like “à la française,” “à l’Espagnole,” “à la russe,” etc. There was two charming berceuses, one rather “straight,” the other evoking the Caucasus ( i.e. à la Terek); Afanasy Afanasievich Fet’s poem “Mitternächtige Bilder” – “Midnight’s Pictures” – was a spooky specimen of the Romantic Gothic with eerie tremolos underscoring phrases like “schreckliche Pracht” – “dreadful splendor”; tremolos also suggest the twinkle of stars in Viardot’s setting of Fet’s “Die Sterne.” Viardot arranged the Serenade from Haydn’s Opus 3, No. 5 quartet (actually written by Hofstetter, and known to boomers as the “Dutch Masters” serenade) as a lovely Canzonetta de Concert.
In the concert’s second half, evocations of Spain predominated, partly inspired by the Beaumarchais trilogy, “Sérénade à Rosine.” Viardot’s “Madrid” was my favorite of the set, winningly effective in Genaux’s sparkling interpretation. The “Habanera” was the only piece of the evening that afforded her the chance to show off some dazzling coloratura. In a series of Russian-language settings of Turgenev and Pushkin, Genaux’s warm low register was especially evident. A morose lament, “Chanson du Pecheur,” set by both Fauré and Viardot, gave one an opportunity to compare the two composers. Genaux gave us the dramatic aria “O ma lyre” from Gounod’s Sapho as an encore.
That Genaux might have been channeling the spirit of Pauline Viardot this evening, especially with the several spectral and ghostly songs, might have been the reason a very large brown bat appeared, mysteriously, and darted around her. Some might have thought it a bird, but she knew better: undaunted, after finishing the song, she laughed it off, saying that it was not her intention to sing a selection from Die Fledermaus.
Seth Lachterman lives in Hillsdale, New York. While dividing his past academic career between music (composition and musicology) and mathematics, he has been a principal at Encore Systems, LLC. He writes regularly for Berkshire Review of The Arts and writes for BMInt in a collaborative venture.