Proms Chamber Music – 4 (Felicity Lott)

La vie antérieure
Chanson triste
Les papillons
Le colibri
Le temps de lilas
Chanson perpétuelle
Si mes vers avaient des ailes
Y’a des arbres
La diva de l’Empire
Je te veux

Dame Felicity Lott (soprano) & Eugene Asti (piano)

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 8 August, 2005
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

Felicity Lott is the doyenne of French song and this recital, including the encores by Poulenc, encapsulated the genre. Pascal Rogé cancelled and was replaced by Eugene Asti, and a capacity Cadogan Hall greeted Dame Felicity with the sort of warmth generally reserved for a very dear friend. Since Cadogan Hall is getting on for twice the size of the Wigmore Hall, and the average age of Lott’s audience was well over 60, concert promoters might note the market for lunchtime recitals in this location, especially as many older people now prefer to go out during the day.

The recital opened a little roughly with the very last song of Duparc’s brief but magnificent oeuvre, “La vie antérieure”, and for a brief moment one thought that Lott’s voice might no longer be quite what it once was; however, she and the excellent Eugene Asti, a regular partner with whom she has recently toured the States, soon hit form with “Phidylé”, one of Duparc’s greatest songs which evokes the languorous heat of a Mediterranean afternoon with extraordinary immediacy. You can almost hear the cicadas. In this repertoire Lott has two aces up her sleeve. Firstly, almost uniquely among singers, her French would do credit to a native speaker and, secondly, this authenticity of inflection enables her to colour words with total conviction, and this is no small matter when dealing with the poetry of Baudelaire and Leconte de Lisle where the sound of the words is almost as important as their meaning.

With the Chausson group each song tells a story and, once again, Lott’s absolute command of the language was a huge advantage in bringing this vividly to life; in “Le temps des lilas”, a deeply nostalgic elegy to lost love, Lott’s subtle colouring of the words “Le vent a changé, les cieux sont moroses” (“The wind has changed, the skies are morose”) was a thing of wonder, whilst in “Chanson perpétuelle” her singing of the climactic verse (“I felt a great quivering and then … he became my lover”) deserved an X certificate!

Amazingly, Reynaldo Hahn (half-German, half-Venezuelan but, somehow, quintessentially Gallic) was only 13 when he wrote two of the songs featured, “Rêverie” and the famous “Si mes vers avaient des ailes”. Hahn’s songs have a wonderful airy nonchalance but this does not prevent them occasionally touching a far deeper vein. “Infidélité”, in which a couple revisit the scene of their first love, culminates with “The air is pure, sweet the grass … Nothing has changed but you”: Lott and Asti brought an involuntary tear to the eye.

Finally, two cabaret songs by Satie, master of the slow waltz who slept in a hammock and owned 300 umbrellas. First, the hilariously sly and knowing “La diva de l’Empire” about a beautiful girl under her Greenaway hat whose admirers in Piccadilly are so besotted they never notice her mocking smile; and then “Je te veux” – literally ‘I want you’ – which the programme note managed to mistranslate as “You are mine”: a real case of jumping the gun! Lott does this repertoire to a tee with wicked timing. And then two delicious encores by Poulenc including his only song in English, “Fancy”, and leaving the feeling that the world is not such a bad place after all.

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