Dame Felicity Lott

The queen of English classical performs the best of French Impressionists, Graeme Stewart reports

Since her 1975 debut as Pamima in Mozart's The Magic Flute for the English National Opera, soprano Dame Felicity Lott has established herself as a singer with few peers and become a full member of the English classical aristocracy.

In her programme for the Belfast Music Society International Festival of Chamber Music, dedicated for the most part to the French impressionists, Lott is joined by Pianist Eugene Asti in the Great Hall at Queen's University.

Lott opens the night with Ravel’s 'Manteau de Fleurs', written for actor Paul Gravollet, who also wrote the words. Like most of Ravel’s vocal music, the piano’s chromatic accompaniment is a blanket of arpeggiated chords and chimes that allow the soprano’s voice to hover above with the melody. Lott’s performance is dramatic and she engages with the audience incredibly well.

The other Ravel songs, taken from the 1906 song cycle Histoires Naturelle, are set to Jules Renards' animal poems 'Le Paon' ('The Peacock') and 'Le Cygne' ('The Swan'). The latter’s words certainly provided the composer with suitable material for his stylistic tendancies, including lines like: 'He glides upon the basin, like a white sleigh, from cloud to cloud. For he is hungry only for the snowy clouds that he sees born, move, and become lost in the water.'

Although short pieces, the music is anchored in the impressionist style and is beautifully performed with a sensitive piano accompaniment from Asti.

Keeping with the theme of French music, Lott performs Debussy’s 'Ariettes Oubliees', in which the composer set texts by fellow national Paul Verlaine in 1888. The music is characteristic of his Piano Preludes, and can be seen as a literal interpretation of Verlaine's poem. Debussy’s setting for the voice is superb and Lott captures the sentiment of each song.

Also included in the first half are songs by Chabrier and perhaps surprisingly, Satie. Throughout his life, Satie was a pioneer of contemporary music and rather than describe himself as a musician preferred the term ‘phonometrican’, meaning someone who ‘measures sound.’

This description is fitting when we consider Gymnopedies, published in 1888. But his songs 'Le Chapelier' and 'Je te veux' are slightly more restrained. Lott’s performance of these French songs is masterful, with a firm grasp of the linguistic contours of the texts.

Moving into the second half, Lott performs from the English composer Frederick Delius, whose music can be seen as an anglicised exposition of his French counterparts. Delius' music for 'In the Garden of the Seraglio' is intensely romantic, yet exists as an entirely different musical language from the chromatic harmonies of Ravel or Debussy.

Delius wears his heart on his sleeve, and Lott’s approach with these pieces is a sentimental one. Similarly, Stanford’s 'From the Red Rose', with words by AP Graves, is a typically English affair, free of any of impressionist meanderings.

Among the final pieces of the night, Vaughan Williams’ 'Silent Noon' is a quintessential example of the composer’s work, and the evening ends with a series of songs by the American composer Samuel Barber. 'The Monk and his Cat and Promiscuity', taken from Barber's Hermit Songs of 1953, provides the best moments of the night.

These strange musings from ancient Irish poetry are markedly different from the other repertoire of the evening, perhaps best described as witty, farcical, cryptic conundrums. But Lott’s ability to perform Barber as it was intended is testament to her abilities not only as a performer but as an actress. All in all, a thoroughly entertaining performance.