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MUSIC REVIEW

Sumptuous travels in French song

Just entre nous, Susan Graham confided from the stage of Jordan Hall on Sunday, "there's always something fishy about the French."

Not in her hands. This cheeky title line from a Noel Coward song came as part of an encore, and was the perfect way to cap this sumptuous all-French recital presented by the Bank of America Celebrity Series. The Coward was preceded by a breathtakingly beautiful, please-don't-end-yet account of "A Chloris" by Reynaldo Hahn .

The contrasting pair of encores captured the expressive range of this recital, a tour of the French art song through the 19th and 20th centuries, guided by the starry American mezzo-soprano with warmth and insouciance. Malcolm Martineau was the fine pianist as well as, we were told, an active partner in assembling this particular sampler of songs.

Fortunately, as Graham's opera career has continued its vertiginous rise, she has maintained a commitment to the song recital, a format in which her communicative gifts come fully to the fore. Most notable on Sunday was the way she fashioned for each song a self-enclosed dramatic world, whether indulging in frippery about an English mouse living the high life in France in Manuel Rosenthal's "La souris d'Angleterre" or painting a delicately tinctured portrait of grief in Messiaen's "La Fiancée Perdue."

It helped that French repertoire has long been Graham's calling card. Sunday's program divided down the middle between the 19th and 20th centuries, with the further portioning of songs into five groups, each with its own dramatic arc. The program touched many of the expected bases, with selections by Debussy, Fauré, Gounod, and Ravel , but also went beyond them into less frequently heard corners of the repertoire. Graham gave a spellbinding performance of Alfred Bachelet's luxurious "Chère nuit" ("Dear Night"), and her keen comic timing in André Caplet's "Le corbeau et le renard" ("The Crow and the Fox") had the audience laughing .

Dramatic presence aside, Graham was in fine voice, sounding lustrous throughout her range, with just a few brief exceptions. Her subtle use of color and elegant phrasing helped skirt any sense of cloying over-sweetness that might otherwise have encroached on a program of this nature. The Belle Epoque material had just the right Proustian, wistful strain. Throughout the afternoon, Martineau matched not only her passion for this repertoire but also her sensitivity in bringing it to life.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.

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