First published in The Herald on 28 August, 2014
Between his two encores, baritone Stéphane Degout neatly summed up the difference between the Germans and the French. When love-afflicted, he said, the former like to wallow in long solitude, whereas the latter tend to shrug and smoke a cigarette. He proceeded to croon through Poulenc’s wonderfully offhand Apollinaire setting Hôtel, which ends in a dangerously seductive advert for the tobacco industry: “Je veux fumer”. (I wonder whether the live BBC Radio 3 broadcast had to bleep out the line.)
Degout has an ideal voice for French song. It is smooth and understated, with a subtle, narrow vibrato and a luxurious way with diction. He sang Fauré’s Automne and mini song cycle L’horizon chimérique with a gorgeous range of muted colours. Often it was pianist Simon Lepper who provided the emotional back story while Degout simply let his voice drift in long, elegant lines. Liszt’s Petrarch Sonnets found the pair in their most animated form; they gave a heightened, muscular account of these enraptured songs, perhaps overstating the climaxes given the intimacy of the Queen’s Hall but a reminder of Degout’s clout on the operatic stage.
The recital’s first half explored a more ghoulish kind of fantasy. The German romantics loved nothing more than a good creepy ballad, and Degout and Leppert relished the macabre in Schubert’s Der Zwerg (The Dwarf), Schumann’s Belsatzar, Carl Loewe’s mildly hysterical Edward and Liszt’s gypsy pastiche Die drei Zigeuner, in which Lepper’s character cameos were brilliantly drawn. The coldest chill came from Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht: Die Ballade vom ertrunkenen Mädchen (Ballad of the Drowned Girl) was written in response to the murder of Rosa Luxemburg and a few faint cracks in Degout’s voice only added to its very real pathos.