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An emotionally draining evening

The week of St Valentine's is almost at a close, and what better way to end it than by listening to one of Charles Baudelaire's romantic poems put to music by Claude Debussy?

It's a story of love found between a poet and a Madagascan girl, set to music composed by Maurice Ravel, and it includes a lover's conversation on the telephone, written by Francis Poulenc.

If your partner came up short this week, then you would have endured a profound sense of empathy, as these are recitations of a distant memory, the abuse and abandonment of a partner and, in the final song, the threat of suicide.

The song selection was a heavy one that focused on French composers around the turn of the last century, and was performed chronologically. This made for hard work, for not only did the listener have to prepare themselves for Impressionist and the beginnings of anti-Romantic compositional approaches, but also an entirely French programme.

The highlight of the evening was the music for which Carole Farley is possibly most well known 'La Voix Humaine', or 'The Human Voice', written by Jean Cocteau and composed by Francis Poulenc. This piece, set in the 1930s, allows the audience to listen in on one side of a phone call between an obsessed woman and her former lover as she describes her impulses and reacts to the news of his departure and love for another woman. A poor telephone connection and inefficient operator are used as a device for separating the different stages of emotion and conversation.

This was not just a rendition, but a performance of all the turmoil of unreturned love. We see Ms Farley casually lounging and chatting, worriedly perched on a couch, angrily pacing and crying profusely, phone always in hand; we witness all of the pain of being strung along without any hope of acceptance in the performance of one conversation, and with an especially sad ending.

She is the beaten woman. Although she ends the piece with a repeated call of 'je t'aime', her tone tells a different, sadder story. Ms Farley seemed very comfortable with the song in all of its despairing tone and dark colour. This was a fly-on-the-wall experience which was performed just as that - there was not a lot of engagement with the audience, but then again it did not seem as though that was her intention.

John Constable, the accompanist, was also able to show his abilities in this piece, alternating more complicated and chromatic piano lines with complete silence, successfully setting the mood and giving us some idea of what Ms Farley might be hearing on the other end of the telephone without overpowering her. For the accompanist all of the pieces that were played are difficult, requiring immaculate timing and an excellent ear, and he did a superb job - especially as none of these pieces were originally designated for a piano accompaniment.

Despite the fact that the lyrics of the Debussy, 'Le Balcon', are warm, Ms Farley interpreted the song as a sad memory. The poetry, written by Charles Baudelaire, details a pleasant story of love from the point of view of a person who has seen a less perfect reality set in. It can be understood why she might choose a more lamenting approach; however, other artists have interpreted 'The Balcony' with more reverence, and it would have been uplifting to have heard it this way. Musically the piece was well performed, an unobscured rendering of Debussy's trademark repetition of musical phrasing, while Mr Constable played to express the dichotomy of the work without overpowering the singer.

Maurice Ravel's 'Chanson Madecasses' is romance in anthropology. Parney relayed the lyrics of this song to Ravel, claiming that they were indigenous stories; however, this has been debated. The story is that of a poet and a Madagascan girl who fall in love, only to have the white population exploit and abuse the natives of the island and the poet abandon his one love for many other subservient lovers. The accompaniment was minimal and unilinear in parts and blooming in others.

Ms Farley found her strength in the lower register, only to surprise everyone with a great, higher fortissimo at the start of the second movement. This was accented by sharp chords, which highlighted the warning against the oppressive invaders to the shore-dwellers' homes. In the story the warning proves ineffective as the third and final movement has to end suddenly after a number of orders are given by the poet to his harem. The piece proved to be a very interesting contrast to the Debussy, which was more conceptual in nature.

This Thursday evening concert left me academically satiated, but also emotionally drained. It was abundantly clear that Mr Constable and Ms Farley's critical timing was good and they perform familiarly and comfortably together in an uncomfortable genre. However, the constant depressive tone was unrelenting - so much so that I found myself seeking refuge in the execution of the piano lines. In order to achieve the chosen effect the singer slid and slurred her way from note to note which gave the distinct impression of flatness

There is no question that the move away from the Impressionism to the Poulenc suited Ms Farley much better than the academic strictness found in the other two selections - and most importantly Ms Farley had a bit of fun with it. She seems to be used to singing in larger venues and at times overly exaggerated her performance, which could be distracting. Further proof of this was found in her diction and volume. The repeated 'je t'aime' ending of the Poulenc, which was the most striking diminuendo and very effectively done, proved to me that more variation in tone might have been much more pleasant in this more intimate setting.

For myself, a single lady fed up with the experience of several disappointing Valentine's days, this was either a confirmation of the pointlessness of love or enough to scare me away from it forever - or, at least, until I get some distance from the evening.

Carole Farley has performed in a string of prestigious roles and venues including the Metropolitan Opera. Her overwhelming discography has led to her nomination of at least one Grammy a highlight of her many achievements. John Constable is the principal pianist of the London Sinfonietta, and is the principal harpsichordist of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, a fellow at the Royal Academy of Music and a professor at the Royal College of Music.

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Published February 18, 2012 at 6:00 am (Updated February 17, 2012 at 5:27 pm)

An emotionally draining evening

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