Sunday, 11 July 2010

Lott/Johnson - Wolf, Duparc, Strauss, Britten, and Poulenc, 10 July 2010

Wigmore Hall

Wolf – Mörike Lieder (selection)
Duparc – L’invitation au voyage
La vie antérieure
Chanson triste
Strauss – Ständchen
Ruhe, meine Seele
Blauer Sommer
Schlechtes Wetter
Britten – The Ash Grove
O Waly, Waly
La belle est au jardin d’amour
Quand j’étais chez mon père
Poulenc – Banalités: ‘Voyage à Paris,’ ‘Sanglots’
Calligrammes: ‘Voyage’

Dame Felicity Lott (soprano)
Graham Johnson (piano)

Though I have long admired Dame Felicity Lott, both in the theatre and in the concert hall, this was the first time I had attended a recital of hers. I was not to be disappointed. A slightly hesitant opening Begegnung opened the way to a distinguished further selection from Wolf’s Mörike settings: Agnes, Der Gärtner, Heimweh, Das verlassene Mägdlein, An eine Äolsharfe, and finally Er ist’s. Typical clarity of diction, lightness of touch (not in any sense to be confused with lack of commitment), and responsiveness both to words and music were a hallmark of these Wolf songs and indeed the recital as a whole. Storytelling came to the fore in Der Gärtner and Das verlassene Mägdlein, though longing and reflection were just as present here as elsewhere. Graham Johnson proved a powerful presence at the piano, occasional slips in no way vitiating a finely tuned sense of the composer’s harmonic narrative. Wagnerian undertones were skilfully but never heavily brought out by both artists: the Wesendonk-Lieder were not far away at all. But nor was an impression of where Wolf was leading; Strauss and Schoenberg beckoned equally.

For the Strauss Lieder with which the second half opened would prove at least as successful. The qualities that combine to make a fine Marschallin combined here too to present longing without a hint of the lachrymose, charm without a hint of kitsch, verbal acuity, and command of line. If Strauss be a prince of Lieder, then Lott was a princess of their performance. Johnson again did not shrink from emphasising the often surprisingly modernistic harmony in some at least of these settings, though they always, quite rightly, remained within a Romantic context. The post-Rosenkavalier waltzing of Schlechtes Wetter, Strauss as masterful in his irony as Heine, rounded off an exquisite group.

The French song Dame Felicity has so much made her own was an important presence in this recital too. She has Duparc to a tee: the poise, the manner of the verse, the perfumed elegance. The Baudelaire settings, L’invitation au voyage and La vie antérieure, were an especial joy, the latter a master-class from both performers in economy and meaningfulness of climax. Britten featured in English and French. I cannot claim great fondness for his folksong settings. The Ash Grove’s contrary harmonies put me too much in mind of the ‘clever’ reharmonisations in which organ scholars from my undergraduate days would delight – though, in fairness, they surely had Britten’s greater originality in mind. O waly, waly is simply rather dull. Likewise, I should much rather hear the composer’s own melodic invention – and his response to verse – than the two French chansons populaires. There could, however, be no faulting the performances here.

This was equally true of the three Poulenc Apollinaire settings. Once again, the mood was just right: light but tender, and every word clearly and meaningfully – insofar as the idea be appropriate for this poet – discernible. Melancholy cast its spell, without the slightest danger of descent into the maudlin. A couple of encores – Britten’s Shakespeare setting, Tell me where is fancy bred, and Poulenc’s delightful, politically incorrect Hôtel – made one wish for still more. Sadly, my hoped-for Morgen was not to be; I suppose one cannot always hear it in a recital that includes Strauss. Next time, perhaps…