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Sandrine Piau - Clair-Obscur - BBC Music Magazine

The title of Sandrine Piau’s latest disc reflects her longstanding obsession with the antagonism between darkness and light – here enshrined in songs by three composers sharing a sensuous fin de siècle penchant for fluidity and ambiguity. In German, the liner notes remind us, the word for dawn and dusk is the same: Dämmerung.

The repertoire, Piau reveals, was the first love of her student years, and she approaches it with the insights of a career built primarily on early and Classical music; she takes nothing for granted and thinks her way anew. Take Strauss’s Four Last Songs. With tempos that don’t hang around, she cuts through the aura of reverence they have accrued over the years. Shunning the velvety voluptuousness of a Jessye Norman or the wide-eyed textual probing of a Schwarzkopf, she brings a freshness of perspective that encourages the reconsideration of cherished prejudices.

She glides over Strauss’s long-limbed lines with rhapsodic abandon. ‘Frühling’ burns with fierce ardour, and attention to colouristic nuance is rooted in her sensitivity to the possibilities of the German language itself. If ‘Beim Schlafengehen’ comes across a little prosaically in places, it’s because Jean-François Verdier isn’t an entirely acclimatised Straussian. But he provides wonderfully contoured support in Berg’s Seven Early Songs. Unassailably idiomatic, vocally refulgent, Piau sounds as if she’s been singing them all her life. (The rapture of ‘Traumgekrönt’ is almost palpable.) Similarly absorbing is Zemlinsky’s Eichendorff-setting ‘Waldgespräch’, Piau’s vocal flights ringing with laser-like command.

Not only does Clair-Obscur bestride some illuminating and unexpected juxtapositions, it confirms – were such confirmation needed – Piau’s exuberant, all-conquering versatility.

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BBC Music Magazine
01 July 2021