Poèmes d'un Jour (Stéphane Degout)
For his previous solo albums, Stéphane Degout has always confined himself to the French repertory, of which he remains a leading and indeed remarkable interpreter. His latest recital, however, recorded live in Paris with Simon Lepper at the piano, marks a self-conscious move into new territory, as Fauré gives way to Brahms and Schumann in a carefully crafted programme exploring themes of nostalgia and transience as they edge towards thoughts of mortality. It’s an exceptional disc, in many ways. The progression from mélodie to Lied seems both natural and inevitable, and the qualities one values so much in Degout’s Fauré – the integration of text and line, his almost instinctive use of colour and dynamics, the uncompromising directness of expression – are those that also make his Brahms and Schumann so utterly compelling.
His voice has darkened somewhat of late. One notices a greater weight and fullness in his lower registers, which allow him to sing Brahms like one born to it. ‘Nicht mehr zu dir zu gehen’, beginning low in the voice, bristles with suppressed anger and resentment. Shafts of regret intrude on the solitary introspection of ‘Die Mainacht’, while ‘Auf dem Kirchhofe’ is all fierce declamation until bitterness is replaced by lyrical warmth towards the close, as death is finally viewed as a release rather than as extinction. Degout’s way with Schumann’s Op 35 Kerner set is unsparing. He treats it very much as a unified cycle, oscillating between bravado and despair until the final collapse of ‘Alte Laute’, powering his way thrillingly through ‘Wanderlied’ and ‘Stille Tränen’, though he also possesses the subtlety and expressive range to encompass the desolate narrative of ‘Stirb, Lieb’ und Freud’’ and the dark morbidity of ‘Auf das Trinkglas eines verstorbenen Freundes’. It’s a formidable performance.
None of it would be quite so overwhelming, though, without Lepper, who is comparably strong here. This is very much a partnership of equals who think and feel alike in the way they present each song as a complete emotional statement, and the recording superbly captures the rapport they have both with each other and their audience, who applaud with growing enthusiasm as the concert progresses. There are a few extraneous noises – some coughing and the rustle of music being turned – though they’re not intrusive and the sound is otherwise spacious and finely balanced. The one drawback here is that the accompanying material consists solely of a poster of the cover photograph with an interview with Degout and Lepper on the reverse, and you need to search the internet for texts and translations. It’s worth doing, though: this is a great recital, and you need to hear it.