Dame Felicity and London Conchord Ensemble, Wigmore Hall

Bit of a last minute decision, this one.  If I don’t get Felicity Lott tickets early on for a Wigmore concert, I assume they won’t be available because concerts usually sell out so quickly.  In this case, a late check and there were plenty available, which may be because it was a split recital between vocal pieces with Lott and some interesting chamber pieces from the multiply-configured London Conchord Ensemble.

The opening piece by Pierné (the Sonata da camera), whilst it was interesting to make its acquaintance, didn’t make  a great impression despite spirited playing.  Next up was Lott to perform three of the Cinq Poèmes de Charles Baudelaire by Debussy.  I tweeted it then, and I repeat it here:  I don’t really ‘get’ Debussy.  I can’t latch on to anything that gives a reference point from which the musical style then seems to make sense.  The rather ‘wispy’ style (to these ears!) of the song settings doesn’t suit my appetite for structure and trajectory.  Maybe it will grow on me, and Lott is probably the singer to do it.  I could listen to her French for hours (if you can forgive the expression), and the points in these songs that called for a full-on drama were momentarily thrilling as the Wigmore was treated to the voice that could still powerfully command a large opera house.  If some of the floated notes were not as effortless and pure as they once were, certainly the close of Le Balcon brought a gorgeously soft, sustained tone that drifted across the silent Wigmore Hall like a thing of magic.  Of the songs overall, though, I remained a little puzzled.

Before we were despatched for the interval, following much stage rearrangement, there was quite a treat in the form of Heitor Villa-Lobos’s Sexteto Místico.  It was introduced from the platform (Alex Ross would have been pleased) by flautist Daniel Pailthorpe with “how often are you going to hear a flute, oboe, celeste, harp, guitar and saxophone on the same stage?”  Indeed, it was an odd mix, but a surprisingly well-deployed one.  Warm sonorities combined with spritely rhythms to deliver something intriguingly exotic.  Following a central adagio involving oboe and harp, which then introduced the flute and saxophone, the piece cantered to an entertaining close.  It was a joy to discover.

The second half brought Felicity Lott back in some meatier fayre, specifically Ravel’s Chansons madécasses.  Fascinating as much for their content as their musical attributes, these songs deal with anti-colonial sentiments expressed in the 18th century poetry of Evariste-Désiré Parny.  Nahandove is a song of lovers; Aoua! (a most startling opening) cautions to ‘Méfiez-vous des blancs…’; and Il est doux is a moment of repose beneath a tree’s cool shade, before the instruction breaks through: ‘Allez, et préparez le repas’.

All of the material was more varied than the Debussy, and more dramatic, which suited Lott’s performance.  Accompanied by piano, flute and cello, there were a myriad different tones and colours to savour, and Lott matched them in her vocal nuance, capturing blends of wistful dreaming about a freer life and the anger that is never too far away.

And so on to the closing piece:  Fauré’s C-minor Piano Quartet no. 1.  Again, besides playing it through on CD before the concert, I had not encountered the piece before, and it made a strong impression.  It was given an incisive performance, pacey, with bite to the rhythms, but giving the brief moments of repose the space that they needed.  The positive harmonies of the close sent us all cheerfully off into the night after what had been a fascinatingly mixed (in a good way) concert.  Just the sort of thing that was needed to banish the first-day-back-to-work-after-the-Easter-break blues.

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