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S & H Festival Review

Quilter, Ireland, Britten, Bridge, Warlock, Vaughan Williams, Dring, Walton. Felicity Lott, (soprano), Iain Burnside (piano) The Parish Church, Ludlow, 4th June, 2004 (AO)


Resplendent in a scarlet gown and stole, Felicity Lott brought a flash of glamour to the sedate setting of the 12th century church in Ludlow this balmy June evening. Glamour, too, was in her singing. She brought panache not often associated with English song. The programme demonstrated aspects of the genre’s sophistication and stylishness.

Elgar’s Speak, Music to text by A C Benson who wrote the words for Land of Hope and Glory set the pace, followed by the well loved Quilter classics, Go, Lovely Rose, Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal, and Love’s Philosophy. Lott’s voice is in fine fettle : the lower reaches particularly attractive. How sensuously she sang the lines "Now folds the lily, all her sweetness up, and slips into the bosom of the lake". In Ireland’s When I am dead, dearest, her clear diction and clear eyed interpretation were refreshing. Lott’s affinity for the music of Benjamin Britten is well known. Her extensive experience in French song, and its values of precision, inform her approach – Britten, I imagine, would have loved it. The cycle, On this Island, was performed with flair, idiomatically picking up on Britten’s word painting and switches of rhythm. The poet is Auden. Subtly, the programme is moving from Victorian Interestingly, Frank Bridge’s setting of Tennyson’s Go Not Happy day followed. Bridge was Britten’s adored teacher. It was intriguing to hear their work together in this context, and ponder Britten’s own Tennyson settings. That Warlock’s setting of Tennyson's Sleep followed, shows equally imaginative programming, for though Quilter’s version may be better known, it was not included in the Quilter songs Lott sang earlier.

 

This being a recital of English song, Warlock’s My own country, "which is a pleasant land" segued straight into one of the best loved English songs of all, Vaughan Williams’s Silent Noon. As Stephen Banfield said in his talk on Victorian poetry earlier in the festival, Rossetti is expressing a barely suppressed sensuality : the lovers lie close to the earth, enfolded in "visible silence". Vaughan William’s understated yet emotionally charged setting enhances the sense of intimacy. Lott’s singing was exquisite, too. "All round our nest, as far as the eye can pass, are golden kingcups with silver edge…" was sung tenderly, as if Lott were sharing a delicious secret.

Felicity Lott may be one of the finest modern singers of French song but she needed her score for the songs of Madeleine Dring, which are rather different to Lott’s usual repertoire. These songs draw their interest directly from Betjeman’s poetry : the musical commentary is so understated as to be almost minimalist. Nonetheless, Betjeman’s subjects are inherently interesting, and his metre has a natural rhythmic flow which lends itself to a humorous, almost declamatory approach. Lott’s artistry made the songs come alive – her acting skills and feel for text came to the fore. Proof, if any were needed, of how important singers are as part of the creative process. The Walton songs were a more in line with Lott’s abilities. The poems, by Edith Sitwell were originally written to be recited, as part of Facade. They are complex poems, with angular lines and striking wordplays. When the soprano Dora Foss asked, Walton set them as songs, but added, "That'll teach her !" for the musical setting is fiendishly difficult to sing. Walton even manages to express in music what Sitwell writes on paper :

"Old Sir Faulk

Tall as a stork"

Lott's vocal agility was easily a match for the wayward prose, lines broken off mid sentence and catalogues of words that would challenge the most articulate of singers.

All the more surprising then, that one of the students in Lott's masterclass the next morning chose to sing two similar Walton songs, when there was a choice of folk songs and easier lollipops. A recipe for disaster? Not in the least. Joana Seara, a young Portuguese soprano gave a spirited performance which showed exceptional musical maturity and grasp of text, challenging even for a native speaker. She was stunning : there was little for Lott to correct but minor pronunciation. Seara is carving a career in opera. She is one of the best new singers I've heard in the last ten years, definitely one to watch out for. But many people enjoy masterclasses to watch the teacher. Lott was natural and unpretentious, putting the students at ease with self-deprecating jokes. It was lovely to see this side of a great diva's personality.

Anne Ozorio


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