Sandrine Piau in recital: Masterfully understated French eloquence

Sometimes I'm sure that I paid Guillaume Apollinaire's bar tabs in my past life - so clearly does his poetry speak to me. But for a wider Philadelphia public, the forever modern French-language poet (1880-1918) became a particularly immediate presence in Sandrine Piau's Tuesday recital presented by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society.

She purposefully re-ordered her final set of Francis Poulenc songs, replacing the feel-good charmer "Les Chemins de l'amour" that was to end the concert with "Sanglots," an Apollinaire-based song that felt like a plea for social responsibility, with references to emigrants and persons marginalized by illness: "We know that within us, many people breathe, who came from afar and are united behind our brows."

Nothing specific was mentioned when pianist Susan Manoff introduced the song to the full Perelman Theater. But here was an instance of how classical music can be meaningfully shaded by whatever the current moment has to offer - and thus never becomes redundant, especially when the messengers are as cultivated as Piau and Manoff.

The concert - which was a rare Piau appearance in this country - went beyond basic expectations of excellent singing and charming presentation. Singers spend their adult lives with German masters such as Franz Schubert. But how many settle in with Claude Debussy and Francis Poulenc the way Piau has? At age 51, she's a captivating presence who seems to physically waft to the emotional winds of whatever she is singing.

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