Karen Cargill and Simon Lepper ****

Edinburgh International Festival

The Queen’s Hall

11.00   10th August ONLY

Arbroath–born Karen Cargill was delighted to be back in Edinburgh to sing to us this morning.   Accompanied by Simon Lepper, she presented a programme of French song – Hahn, Debussy, Chausson and Duparc, which for some reason she finished off with Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder.  At the end, the audience were silent for a long moment, then loud in their applause, stamping, and cheering, while I felt more like a dispassionate observer than someone caught up in the emotion of the performance.


Was it because she’s a soprano, and I resonate more strongly to the mezzo voice? Yesterday, however, I was bowled over by the soprano soloist in Scottish Opera’s Bambin0, so I don’t think it was the voice.  Today I was unmoved and unengaged: by contrast yesterday’s singer reached out and drew us all in with eye contact, smile, and invitation to join in her emotions, whereas Karen Cargill closed her eyes a lot, and appeared to withdraw into an internal world to which I did not feel invited…


Was it simply that the chansons she chose for the first half were in the main light, charming, and not a lot else?  Reynaldo Hahn’s A Chloris, with which the recital opened, normally reduces me to tears – but not this time.  The Debussy Chansons de Bilitis’ exquisite word-setting and ‘strange’ harmonies were more engaging – but a century on not as outrageous as they must have seemed when first heard.  The Chausson were equally charming, beautiful and Ms Cargill slightly more engaged with us.


There was much that was unsubtle and frivolous – ‘talking of love’ but only playing at it – like Sondheim’s princes in Into The Woods more in love with the idea of being in love than deeply-felt passion, even with Ms Cargill’s rich voice pouring out a glorious stream of  sound.  I think of chansons as translucent, elusive, misty watercolours, but here we had chocolate box paintings: though the sparse simplicity of the Debussy was more reminiscent of Alison Watt – pared down to essentials and leaving the listener / viewer to respond to that which is only hinted at….


Part two was much more engaged and engaging, possibly because Ms Cargill is more at home in this repertoire [her operatic roles are mainly Wagnerian]?  The Duparc songs have greater depth, heart, subtlety and intensity, and superb accompaniments: but even here she and Simon Leppard left me wanting something more than I was being given.  I wonder whether the fact that this recital was being broadcast live on Radio 3 was making both musicians concentrate more on getting it right than on letting go and ‘simply singing’…  In the Wagner Ms Cargill was much more engaged with her audience – is she just a lot more comfortable in German?  The ends of words’ consonants were clearly enunciated, which gives a different shape to the vocal line from the elusive, sinuous, slippery French.  I really don’t like Wagner, for lots of reasons, but she did a good job in communicating these Lieder to us.


The encore brought me to tears: the Eriskay Love Lilt, sung simply and from the heart.  I’d been looking for this all morning and was delighted to find it, albeit at the last moment: Ms Cargill came fully alive, and her song spoke directly to my heart.

Mary Woodward