Knight and Dame – Felicity Lott & Thomas Allen at Wigmore Hall with Eugene Asti

Let us wander, not unseen; Lost is my quiet forever; Sound the trumpet
Michael Head
The estuary
Ma bonny lad
Sea fever
Shepherd’s Song
Geoffrey Bush
It was a lover and his lass
Tanzlied; Er und sie; Ich bin dein Baum; So wahr die Sonnescheinet
Pleurs d’or
Veronique – De-ci, de-là
Cherry-Tree Farm
The Swing
Eric Coates
Bird songs at eventide
Jerome Kern
Very warm for May; All the things you are; The folks who live on the hill
Lerner & Loewe
Brigadoon – Heather on the hill
Rodgers & Hart
Bewitched, bothered and bewildered
September Song
Rodgers & Hammerstein
Oklahoma! – People will say we’re in love
Don Giovanni – Là ci darem la mano
Lerner & Loewe
Gigi – I remember it well

Dame Felicity Lott (soprano) & Sir Thomas Allen (baritone) with Eugene Asti (piano)

Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson

Reviewed: 23 June, 2012
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

The promotional material for this concert spoke of “two much-loved international artists who can now look back on their lifetimes of achievement with a smile.” It also quoted Sir Thomas Allen’s predilection for entertainment. The title of their joint recital promised something not too serious; rather a party given by a much-beloved couple for a large circle of friends, free of reverence towards seniority.

There is plenty of provision for veterans in the world of professional sport, not least tennis and golf. The term veteran must assuredly apply to Sir Thomas Allen at 67 and to Dame Felicity Lott, who is 65. What matters not is your calendar age but how you feel. Well, these two singers are clearly not feeling ready to be pensioned off. They made a virtue of their advancing years, especially at encore time. Their rendering of ‘Là ci darem la mano’ was a Darby and Joan version, with Sir Thomas camping up his wooing and Dame Felicity exaggerating the girlishness of his innocent target, both trying desperately to recapture how things used to be. Then, in the duet from Gigi, the decline in memory associated with old age became only too real as the baritone repeatedly needed to remind himself of the text. Or was he only pretending? The audience loved it no matter which.

There was a tacit understanding between the artists, eager to enjoy themselves, and an audience happy to prolong a lengthy relationship with two of Britain’s most cherished operatic and concert singers, indeed to extend it. This was a very eclectic programme – we were led from Purcell to twentieth-century Broadway, with varied musical styles intersecting with poetic themes. Sir Thomas’s first half group focused on the sea, his partner’s comprised English song. After the interval she wittily chose three songs by French composers to English texts. He gave a nod to the English ballad tradition in what was erroneously listed as “Birds at eventide”, performed with no hint of condescension.

Should the main substance of this recital then be spared the critical rigour normally expected of this on-line publication? I think not. Of course the voices are not what they were. Sir Thomas in particular had to tread carefully in vocal management. His tone has undergone a loss of resonance and he now needs to cover the sound in certain areas but much remains of the voice and artistry with which his international reputation was made. In John Ireland’s Sea Fever, comfortably positioned for the singer’s present vocal resources, we were transported back thirty years to the Art-song interpreter in his prime, subtly differentiating in each verse the varied attractions of the sea and its community, respectively escape, physical exhilaration and companionship.The solution he chose for Michael Head’s The Estuary was less agreeable. In the atmospheric opening stanzas of his setting of Ruth Pitter’s poem Head alternates rapid prose-like phrases with intermittent held notes on significant words. Sir Thomas was initially ungenerous with his proper singing tone, lapsing frequently into a dry parlando. This is a song which the singer clearly admires (he has described it as “the most perfect depiction of a river I’ve ever heard”) and he reserved his full range of vocal skills for the colourful passage describing the excitement generated by a ship’s arrival. Eugene Asti’s treatment of the accompaniment was particularly vivid here, contrasted perfectly with the spare textures with pearl-like high notes with which the episode is framed.

For Dame Felicity the chosen repertoire shied well away from testing high notes (which were never her strong point in any case). Time has loosened the vibrations of her voice as it climbs towards the top of the stave but the characteristically bright timbre is still strongly evident. Clarity of enunciation has always been Dame Felicity’s strong suit. We heard evidence of this in her first contribution, Elgar’s Shepherd’s Song, and it was conspicuous in all the various music. Added to that was her acting, especially her use of the body: in Ivor Gurney’s Sleep her hands were outstretched in supplication, then clasped together at the climax. I soon learnt not to bury my head in my programme when she was singing. The quality of her musicianship was tested by the extraordinary setting of It was a Lover and his Lass by Geoffrey Bush, with its declamation, fioriture and percussive battle with the piano. In the latter Asti was a worthy, aggressive contestant.

Schumann love-duets have appeared on their joint recitals before. Apart from the hymn-like So wahr die Sonnescheinet these are no cakewalk, nor did this performance support the view that they are inferior Schumann, though arguably the structure of some of them is confused and the voices are not entirely well matched. The baritone has the more interesting and more challenging part in both Ich bin dein Baum and Er und sie; in the former he has to offer energetic courting, while in the latter proud, swelling phrases test his upper register. Little sign was evident of a voice reduced in power here.

The choice of French duets juxtaposed the vivacity of Véronique with the long phrases, elongated vowels, and yearning feminine endings of Pleurs d’or. The conclusion of Fauré’s song showed Allen’s control of soft head-voice very much intact.

The party mood was sustained in the closing music-theatre group. The relaxed atmosphere which found the baritone with his hands in his pockets was ideally suited to the conversational style of the Jerome Kern pieces. Both singers and their pianist tackled this repertoire as to the manner born. If forced to choose a highlight I would nominate Dame Felicity’s Bewitched, bothered and bewildered, to which she brought intimacy of utterance and directness of communication, physically as well as verbally.

The Wigmore Hall audience, fastidious though it is, can let its hair down and joined in the fun with a will. Did they wonder, like me, about the irony of enlisting such a boyish-looking pianist in such a recital? But my research shows that he is 50!

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