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A Halcyon Recital

San Francisco
Herbst Theater
05/01/2008 -  
Gustav Mahler: Rückert-Lieder
Robert Schumann: Widmung Op. 25 No. 1 & Aus den östlichen Rosen Op. 25 No. 25 (from ‘Myrthen’) - Liebeslied Op. 51 No. 5 - Philine (Singet nicht in Trauertönen)
Hugo Wolf: Frühling übers Jahr - I>Anakreons Grab - Mignon III (So lasst mich scheinen…) - Kennst du das Land
Henri Duparc: L’Invitation au Voyage
Pierre Capdevielle: Je n’ai pas oublié
Henri Sauguet: Le Chat
Claude Debussy: Le Jet d’eau
Henri Duparc La Vie antérieure (Baudelaire)
Noel Coward: I’ll follow my secret heart - English Lesson - Nevermore
Reynaldo Hahn: Air de la lettre
Oscar Straus: Valse des adieux
André Messager: J’ai deux amants

Felicity Lott (soprano), Graham Johnson (piano)

To be in San Francisco for Dame Felicity Lott’s recital on May Day evening was to very happily step back in time. The performance carried us back half a century, to a more refined and civilized age. From the moment she stepped onto the stage, with her extraordinary upright bearing and posture, we were transported. The intimate Herbst Theatre is probably California’s most historic and elegant recital hall. The United Nations Charter was signed on that same stage on June 26, 1945. The 928-seat auditorium is part of the 1932 War Memorial Performing Arts Center. Eight large, brilliantly colored beaux-arts murals, created by artist Frank Brangwyn for the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition, adorn the upper walls. Dame Felicity’s voice and countenance bore a feminine wisdom and grace that also seems to have long ago vanished from the world.

She opened with Mahler’s Ruckert-lieder, which instantly created an incomparably unique sound world. Each and every bar of these songs is like a signature. The Mahler Weltanschauung was immediately enchanting and unmistakable. The wistful melodies and the hauntingly romantic imagery were perfectly limned by Dame Felicity’s limpid, melting high notes and evocative phrasing. While in the lower register, her voice may have been slightly rough, as she warmed up she achieved all the suppleness of newly spun silk. Her performance of the Mahler songs, and of the entire German repertoire, was unrelentingly British. She did not become part of that Mahlerian world, the way Janet Baker does. But she painted that world, and opened a window onto it. Her performance was intimate and personal, yet infinitely dignified and artistic. As a singer, she was not a “method actor.” But she embodied the English ideals of grace and reserve. In her voice, Mahler’s Ruckert-lieder were subtly ravishing, quietly overwhelming.

The two Schumann songs also set to Ruckert poems took the recital out of the universe of Mahler into the broader world of the 19th century German art song. Each of the love songs was exquisite and sad, leading finally into Goethe, the romantic heart of the genre. Hugo Wolf’s Goethe songs were filled with even more emotion and drama, with the penultimate “So laßt mich scheinen,” perhaps the most effecting.

The second half of the concert also began with strength, with Duparc’s “Invitation au voyage,” from Baudelaire. A masterpiece of the period, it is certainly one of the most beautiful songs ever written. The selections from Baudelaire were both typical and superlative. Debussy’s impressionist “Le jet d’eau,” created a marvelous contrast in tone and style to the more Romantic Duparc. The poems set to music by the lesser-known 20th century composers Pierre Capdevielle and Henri Sauget were also excellent choices.

After the serious German Romantics and the languid French, Dame Felicity finally went home, back across the channel to Noel Coward. Three songs from the little-known operetta Conversation Piece were absolutely charming. Her superb accompanist, Graham Johnson, joined her in a brief duet to set up the dramatic scene. Coward’s levity and humor, flawlessly performed, was the perfect foil to brighten the darkness of the evening.

The final songs from French operetta, based on texts by Sacha Guitry, were full of atmosphere, character and delight. While she did not create spectacle or catharsis, Dame Felicity Lott gave us a splendid sunset of art songs and beauty. Her program was thoughtfully, even brilliantly composed. She saved some of the very best, “If Love Were All” by Noel Coward and Poulenc’s “Les chemins de l'amour,” for the perfect encores.

Thomas Aujero Small



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