Sandrine Piau - Clair-Obscur - Presto Classical

First up is Clair-Obscur (out last Friday on Alpha) from the radiant French soprano Sandrine Piau, hitherto more associated with baroque and Classical repertoire rather than the German late-Romantics, but in absolutely superb vocal form throughout this thoughtfully-conceived programme of Zemlinsky, Berg and Strauss with the Orchestre Victor Hugo Franche-Comté. She opens with a relative rarity, Zemlinsky’s ballade Waldgespräch, in which a man rebukes a young woman for walking alone at night only for the tables to be turned on him: the ‘fair damsel’ is the witch Lorelei, who has no intention of allowing him to emerge from the forest where their paths cross. It’s an unsettlingly beautiful work which Piau delivers with febrile, appropriately other-worldly sensuality, and both she and the strings-only orchestra are fully attuned to the shifts between light and darkness which are referenced in the album’s title.

It’s light rather than shade, though, which predominates elsewhere - and especially in the luminous account of Strauss’s Four Last Songs, usually the province of significantly heavier voices than Piau’s lightish lyric instrument but sung here with a freshness and flexibility that made me hear them in a whole new light. Piau approaches them entirely on her own terms, making full use of the colours at her disposal but never manufacturing weight or darkness that doesn’t come naturally into the voice, and conductor Jean-François Verdier supports her at every turn; whilst there’s plenty of forward momentum in each song, the relatively swift tempi never short-change the music, and textures retain a refreshing translucence even in the most thickly-scored passages so that Piau’s shining soprano never tarnishes or struggles to cut through. It’s a beguiling interpretation indeed, and one that made me eager to hear what Piau might do with Strauss’s Arabella or the Countess in Capriccio.

Presto Music
19 March 2021