United Kingdom Oxford Lieder – A Spring Weekend of Song opening concert with Felicity Lott: Felicity Lott (soprano), Eugene Asti (piano): Holywell Music Room, Oxford 4.3.2016. (CR)
Schubert: Die Männer sind méchant!; Gretchen am Spinnrade
Wolf: Das verlassene Mägdlein: Erstes Liebeslied eines Mädchens
Poulenc: La dame de Monte Carlo
Walton: Wapping Old Stairs
Weill: Nanna’s Lied
Rodgers: What’s the Use of Wondrin’
Lèhar: Komm zu mir zum Tee
Brahms: Och Moder, ich well en Ding han
Schumann: Singet nicht in Trauertönen
Oscar Straus: Jede Frau hat irgendeine Sehnsucht
Coward: Alice it at it again
Lord Berners: Come on Algernon
Offenbach: Invocation à Vénus
Hahn: C’est très villain d’être infidèle’
Messager: J’ai deux amants
Poulenc: Les chemins de l’amour
For the opening concert of the Oxford Lieder Festival’s smaller sibling to mark the onset of spring, Dame Felicity Lott presented an enticing and impressively diverse programme of songs charting the felicities, frustrations, and naughtinesses of love. The stylistic variety of the repertoire was successfully held together above all by Lott’s irrepressible charm and vitality, and by the thematic coherence of the songs’ themes which frequently explored not so much the early flowering of romantic desire, but the more knowing and wily ways of a more experienced and wise outlook on the affairs of the heart, as in the euphemism of five o’clock tea through the whole night in Lèhar’s Komm zu mir zum Tee!, the mischievous enjoyment of playing off two lovers in Messager’s song, or the ironic denunciation of infidelity in Hahn’s C’est très villain d’être infidèle (It is very bad to be unfaithful).
Good clean fun, then, we were spared, but this is not to suggest that there was any hint of Carry On smut or indecency. Lott is too refined and subtle a singer and musical actress for that, and the songs themselves incomparably more sophisticated. The tone and register of the selection vary widely and Lott demonstrated remarkable flexibility in catching the right character for each. Perhaps there was a steely edge and slightly constrained delivery in the more classical lieder at the beginning of the recital, though the mystical steadiness of the melody and harmonies in Wolf’s Das verlassene Mägdlein elicited an admirably clear and studied tone. In Poulenc’s La dame de Monte Carlo, however, her voice opened out, setting an ideal tone for the earthy wisdom of Jean Cocteau’s words without any sense of sententious philosophising.
That carried through to the ironic hectoring of Walton’s Wapping Old Stairs, a mock lyricism for Weill’s Nanna’s Lied, and even a girlish coquetry in Brahms’s German folksong setting Och Moder, ich well en Ding han (O Mother, I want to have a thingy – where the thing turns out to be a husband). She brought an apt radiance to the more sustained settings of Schumann’s Singet nicht in Trauertönen (Do not sing in mournful tones) and Oscar Straus’s Jede Frau hat irgendeine Sehnsucht (Every woman has some secret longing) but this stood in sharp contrast with the comedy of Noel Coward’s Alice is at it again and Lord Berners’s Come on Algernon, where Lott’s execution (involving half-spoken lines and barely musical delivery) sounded equally natural and unforced.
At the piano Eugene Asti was similarly responsive to the eclectic demands of the different songs; indeed he often gave the lead in setting the mood and pace (rather than merely providing dutiful accompaniment) and shaded the colours of the music accordingly. Despite some dull-sounding tones occasionally in the lower middle register of the piano (which seemed to be the fault of the instrument), in other respects his accompaniments variously sparkled (for example Wolf’s Erstes Liebeslied eines Mädchens) or exuded a delectable warmth (such as Rodgers’s What’s the Use of Wondrin’). Altogether this was an exemplary recital in providing a programme which was both stimulating and entertaining.