Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Dame Felicity Lott @ Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

16 May 2007

As part of the “Song on the South Bank” series, Dame Felicity Lott was joined at the Queen Elizabeth Hall by the Nash Ensemble in an evening that was definitely not for someone who had rushed there from an exhausting day at the office.

From the gentle flute opening of Debussy’s Prelude l’aprs-midi d’un faune here in a chamber version for 12 players a dreamy, somnolent mood was evoked as we were floated through works, both familiar and lesser-known, from the French repertoire.

It was difficult at times during the evening to see whether this was a chamber or song recital, and which was the star, singer or ensemble, as equal emphasis was given to both.

A not quite impromptu rendition of two songs by Roussel followed Debussy’s ground-breaking tone poem. Felicity Lott gave a spoken introduction to the Deux Pomes de Ronsard which, although they didn’t appear in the official programme, had been announced on the South Bank’s website, so were not as off-the-cuff as they may have seemed. As with the two Roussel pieces, Ibert’s Deux stles orientes is a gentle work for voice accompanied by solo flute.

A much jauntier note was struck with Poulenc’s Sextet: a wind ensemble with piano that alternates between the playful style familiar from the composer’s Les biches and a more solemn mood. In the first movement, an exuberant opening gives way to a melancholy theme played on bassoon, then taken up by each instrument in turn, before returning to the earlier jollity. This flow back and forth between light-heartedness and solemnity (as well as a strong connection with contemporaneous poets) marked the whole programme.

Ravel’s delightful Introduction and Allegro saw another interesting combination of instruments: a string quartet with harp, flute and clarinet. The harp, ever-present, came into its own with a gorgeous extended solo that might have sent sleepier members of the audience back into a dreamlike state.

The meat of the evening came with the return of Felicity Lott to the podium. Absent throughout all the preceding items, conductor Marc Minkowski joined soloist and ensemble for Berlioz’ glorious song cycle Les nuits d’t. If it was meat, it was lightly cooked and certainly not beef, with a small group of instruments and a soprano rather than the more usual mezzo voice.

This was less noticeable in the light first song (Villanelle) but became more apparent with the profounder Le spectre de la rose, and the lack of lower register hardly plumbed the depths of the following murky lagoons, full of imagery of death and bitterness.

If this wasn’t an intense dramatic interpretation, the impeccable musicianship and still-sweet tone of the Dame brought out the delicacy of the vocal lines and sentiments expressed.

Overall, a pleasant if not overwhelming evening which introduced some hidden gems of the French chamber repertoire and gave a different slant to one of the world’s great song cycles.

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