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Seen and Heard Recital  Review



Strauss to Sondheim:
Songs and duets by Mendelssohn, Mozart. Richard Strauss, Noël Coward, Rogers & Hammerstein, Irving Berlin, Frank Loesser, Jerome Kern and Stephen Sondheim. Dame Felicity Lott (soprano); Sir Thomas Allen (baritone); Malcolm Martineau (piano) Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 28. 11.2006 (JQ)


The splendidly alliterative title for this recital was not quite accurate. In fact, it applied to the second half only since the first half was given over to music by Mendelssohn and Mozart.


I may as well nail my colours to the mast at once and say that had this recital been given by just one of these two singers then I would have been eager to hear it. As it was, the prospect of hearing two of my very favourite singers performing together exerted an irresistible, magnetic attraction. As Sir Thomas told us during the evening, he, Dame Felicity and Malcolm Martineau have been performing this programme on occasions for about a year and, in fact, this particular concert had originally been scheduled for April but had been postponed. The performers demonstrated polish and easy familiarity with the programme yet they still managed to convey spontaneity and freshness.


With hindsight the opening group, four duets and one solo for each singer by Mendelssohn did not properly presage what was to come. I was somewhat surprised to see the singers using copies for the duets. Nothing wrong with that in principle, but the copies seemed to act as a bit of a barrier, more in the case of Sir Thomas, who appeared to me to be reading from the copy far more than was his partner. Both sang their respective solos from memory, however, and this enabled them to achieve much greater communication with the audience.


But then copies were dispensed with for the remainder of the evening and the Mozart group that followed, wittily and informally introduced by Sir Thomas, with a little help from Dame Felicity, demonstrated amply that we were being entertained not just be two excellent singers but by two very fine singer-actors. A point of interest here was that the chosen duets gave the singers some chances to sing excerpts from roles not normally associated with them. Thus, for example, in ‘Là ci darem la mano’ from Don Giovanni Dame Felicity took the part of Zerlina though in full productions she more usually sings Donna Elvira, as she told us. Here Sir Thomas was a suave, insinuating Don but the audience could not have been surprised that this rake was tempted by such an entrancing Zerlina.


Dame Felicity’s silvery soprano is an ideal Mozart voice and here she was heard to excellent advantage as Susanna in ‘Crudel, perchè finora’ from Le nozze di Figaro, opposite a suitably lecherous Count.


After the interval Dame Felicity, who had looked ravishing in the first half in a long dress of several hues of blue and topped off with a silvery-grey voile chemise, reappeared looking even more spectacular in a charcoal grey long dress decorated with a multitude of thin strips of silver. Her singing matched her appearance in the wonderful duet between the eponymous heroine and her suitor, Mandryka, from Strauss’s opera Arabella. Her lustrous voice is just perfect for such a role and I loved, for example, the way she delivered the soaring, echt-Strauss phrase “auf den die Sonne blitzt!” Opposite her Sir Thomas made a fine Mandryka although I did wonder if he wasn’t just a touch too noble and refined. After all, Mandryka is a bit rough-and-ready as gentlemen go. But that’s an extremely minor quibble. At the end of their superbly delivered duet their voices combined most beautifully and tenderly, generating just the right amount of rapture. Then, while Malcolm Martineau played the gently ecstatic postlude they came together centre stage and embraced, This typified the care and the operatic experience that lay behind the whole recital.


Then it was on to Songs from the Shows and a discriminating selection was offered. In Dame Felicity’s first solo, Noël Coward’s ‘If love were all’ from Bittersweet she sang more than once a phrase that typified so much of this section of the programme in particular: “a talent to amuse”. I loved her sophisticated way with this sophisticated song. Then she and her partner sat back-to-back for Coward’s ‘A room with a view’, which was as delightful to watch as it was to hear. The two songs from Loesser’s score for Guys and Dolls, which segued into each other, were quintessential examples of American music theatre at its best and both were winningly delivered.  Sir Thomas was marvellous in ‘Some enchanted evening’ and the official programme ended with Sondheim’s ‘Send in the Clowns’, which actually contains more dialogue than music and which sounded most idiomatic in the hands of these two expert troupers.


Long before this last number they’d had the audience in the palms of their hands and there was no way that they would be allowed to go without encores. We got two, including a delightful rendition of  ‘I remember it well’ from Gigi, a perfect vehicle for these two expert practitioners of theatrical nuance and timing. 


Near that start of the evening Sir Thomas remarked that one raison d’être for the programme is that “the three of us like working together”. Well, that was evident from start to finish. Though the whole recital was taken with proper seriousness by all three performers they clearly had a great deal of fun in the process and that came across abundantly. Malcolm Martineau, one of the finest accompanists on the international circuit, provided wonderful support throughout the evening, working in true partnership with his singers, and “with” them at all times.


In terms of quality and entertainment value the programme was generous but I’m sure I was not alone in finding it all-too-short. It was a truly delightful evening of first-rate singing and marvellous communication between performers and audience. Sadly, Symphony Hall was at best half-full. Those of us who were there, however, experienced a rare treat.


John Quinn


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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)