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Felicity Lott Channels Yvonne Printemps

Felicity Lott, photo by Trevor Leighton
Soprano Felicity Lott (photo by Trevor Leighton)
Vocal Arts Society concluded another excellent season on Wednesday night with a delectable recital by British soprano Felicity Lott and her long-time collaborator, the superlative Graham Johnson. The capacity crowd took some extra time to pass through the recently added security measures at the Austrian Embassy, but the opening note was delayed only by about fifteen minutes. The brilliant program of this recital was organized in sets devoted to important poets, beginning with Mahler's settings of poems by Friedrich Rückert. The duo were strongest in the dreamy textures of the slower songs of the Fünf Rückertlieder, with a gentle, varied vocal line from Lott in Ich atmet' einen linden Duft! perfumed by gentle, heavily pedaled aromas in the piano. In the shy Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder, Johnson's playing could have been a little more agile, but that somewhat fuzzy style was perfectly suited to Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen, which ended in a disembodied and exquisite stillness. Although it seemed a shame not to have heard the set's final song, Um Mitternacht, that suspended stasis made for a glorious conclusion.

A set of Rückert and Goethe songs by Schumann and Wolf ended the first half. Schumann's Widmung and Liebeslied provided a chance for a more agitated musical approach. Lott's German pronunciation was clean, and her characterization for each song was carefully crafted, from detached coolness to coy, girlish skittishness. The voice sounded strained at the top at times, but Lott was still able to spin out a gorgeous high pianissimo. The set ended with a pairing of two of Wolf's settings of Goethe's lyrics for Mignon, the wandering naïf in Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, sung with childish intensity and some of the most booming sounds from the embassy's Bösendorfer.

Yvonne Printemps
Yvonne Printemps
A second half of filthy French songs prompted a gown change for Lott, from classic gold to bright pink. Johnson later explained that the program was also unified by the connection of all of the songs to Yvonne Printemps (née Wignolle, 1894-1977), the genre-crossing French soprano. A set of Baudelaire poems brought together songs by Duparc and Debussy, as well as lesser composers Pierre Capdevielle and Henri Sauguet. Duparc's L'invitation au voyage and Capdevielle's Je n'ai pas oublié seemed in this context to be the French mirror image of the Mignon songs, a dream of an exotic Shangri-La (the Netherlands) and a memory of a lost home. Lott's French was as good as her German, with only the deadly combination of "u" and "r" proving difficult ("sur," "azur").

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Felicity Lott, Basking in a Wistful Glow (Washington Post, May 10)

Joshua Kosman, French songs elicit Lott's best (San Francisco Chronicle, May 3)

Thomas Aujero Small, A Halcyon Recital (ConcertoNet, May 2)
Johnson, speaking from the piano, took the part of Noël Coward to Lott's Yvonne Printemps in a set of pieces from the act Coward wrote for her. For all that Coward's music has an effortless, refined air, it can be desperately hard for other performers to recreate that brilliant nonchalance, but it was a natural fit for Johnson and Lott. Nevermore had one of those instantly memorable melodies that Coward could spin so easily, and English Lesson, with Lott feigning to read her language exercises from a book, was a macaronic stitch. A final set of poems by Printemps's first husband, Sacha Guitry, concluded the recital, extended the Coward group with a series of pretty cabaret-style songs. This conclusion not only provided a lighter contrast to the earlier serious repertoire, it brought some attention to composers like Reynaldo Hahn, Oscar Straus, and André Messager. Encores continued in the same vein, with Coward's If Love Were All and Poulenc's setting of the Jean Anouilh poem Les chemins de l'amour.

This concert will be repeated tomorrow (May 10, 7:30 pm) at Carnegie Hall.

Noel Coward and Yvonne Printemps, I'll Follow My Secret Heart

Vocal Arts Society's 2008-2009 season promises to be another blockbuster. Major names are on the roster, including another recital by Felicity Lott (April 17, 2009), Anne-Sophie von Otter in her stunning Theresienstadt program (April 30, 2009 -- not part of the subscription series), Magdalena Kožená (May 6, 2009), and Teddy Tahu Rhodes (May 12, 2009). The other secret to VAS's success is that it showcases the most promising young singers, too, including mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey with Steven Blier's New York Festival of Song (November 14, 2008), Sarah Coburn and Lawrence Brownlee (January 31, 2009), soprano Susanna Phillips (March 26, 2009). If you enjoy exquisite song recitals, get your subscription soon.

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