Call me Flott
Songs by Samuel BARBER (1910-1981), Irving BERLIN (1899-1989), Lord BERNERS (1883-1950), Sir Arthur BLISS (1891-1975), Frank BRIDGE (1879-1941), Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976), Geoffrey BUSH (1920-1998), Noël COWARD (1899-1973), Madeleine DRING (1923-1977), Michael FLANDERS (1922-1975) and Donald SWANN (1923–1904), Charles GOUNOD (1818–1893), Reynaldo HAHN (1875-1947), Antony HOPKINS (b. 1921), Mervyn HORDER (1910-1997), Herman HUPFELD (1894-1951), Jerome KERN (1885-1945), John MUSTO (b. 1954), Ivor NOVELLO (1893-1951), Cole PORTER (1891-1964), Francis POULENC (1899-1963), Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921), George WARE (1829-1895)
Full track listing at end of review
Dame Felicity Lott (soprano); Graham Johnson (piano)
rec. The Music Room, Champs Hill, West Sussex. Dates not given

If you look at the contents of this recital and see the names of such composers as Cole Porter, Ivor Novello and Noël Coward you might be forgiven for thinking that this CD is the vocal equivalent of a collection of Beecham ‘lollipops’. However, such is not the case. To be sure, there is some lighter material here – quite a bit of it, in fact – but it’s interwoven with more serious fare, including several novelties. Also, and this is a key point, Felicity Lott and Graham Johnson treat every piece, even such a “lightweight” as the music hall spoof by Lord Berners, with equal care and fastidious musicianship. In fact, what this disc is all about, Graham Johnson tells us, is the sheer pleasure of performing songs in English.

There are some surprises on the way. We hear the only song that Poulenc composed to an English text – lines from The Merchant of Venice. I don’t think I’ve ever heard it before but it’s a dreamy delight. The link with Britten, whose setting of the same lines is placed next, is that both of these settings were written at the request of Marion Countess of Harewood. Though the same text is set the two songs could hardly be more different. Britten’s is much pithier, almost spiky. My own preference – and it’s a strong one - is for Poulenc’s response to Shakespeare.

Poulenc is not the only French composer who makes a “surprise” entry in this programme of songs in English. I was intrigued to see a setting by Gounod of Shelley’s poem, Love’s Philosophy. In fact, Graham Johnson tells us that he wrote some seventy songs in English while in self-imposed exile in London in 1870, but he promptly adapted them all to different texts in his native tongue on his return home! The fountain mingles with the river is a good song. I was just as unaware of the existence of even one English song by Saint-Saëns – are there any more, I wonder? – and the lilting setting included here has no little charm. The Hahn song is one of five settings by him of words by Robert Louis Stevenson. I suspect these rarities have been unearthed by Graham Johnson: how does one man have such an encyclopaedic knowledge of the art song repertoire and of its more recherché corners?

Naturally, there are several songs by English composers. New to me was Mervyn Horder’s setting of Under the greenwood tree – and how unusual to hear these lines set to a tango rhythm! Another song I’d not heard before was Antony Hopkins’ A melancholy song. Perhaps best known for his writings about music and his long-running radio series, Talking about Music, Hopkins the composer is represented here by an extremely brief song. It’s bright and deft, quite belying the title. Incidentally, though Ms Lott’s diction is impeccable throughout, this was one of the numbers in which I regretted the lack of texts in the booklet.

There’s also an entry from Sir Arthur Bliss, whose songs are too little known. As Graham Johnson comments, his The return from town is “music as simple as a folksong”. It’s expertly rendered here. However, I was intrigued to find that the interpretation is markedly different to that by Geraldine McGreevy and Kathron Sturrock on the Hyperion set of the complete songs of Bliss (review). There the song is delivered at a much faster tempo and is dispatched in a mere 1:07. On this present disc Lott and Johnson take 2:05 and the song is radically different as a result.

Lighter songs from both sides of the Atlantic account for quite a lot of the programme. The three songs by Noël Coward are done with real feeling – I particularly enjoyed If love were all – and Lott is a delightful interpreter of Cole Porter. She’s the epitome of a coolly correct maidservant in Miss Otis regrets and delivers the devilishly clever double entendres of The physician with relish.

I mentioned earlier the care and skill which has gone into these performances. The best illustration of this, perhaps, is Flanders and Swann’s hilarious A word on my ear. A friend of mine, a very good soprano, has this song in her repertoire and, having heard her rehearse and perform it several times, I know how musically taxing it is both for the singer and for the poor pianist. It takes top quality musicianship to be able to pull this song off at all, let alone to make it sound as funny as it does here.

This is a peach of a disc and it entertained me greatly. Anyone who has seen Dame Felicity in recital will know what an engaging singer she is. She has the gift of being able to sound just as engaging through loudspeakers and she has the perfect partner in Graham Johnson.

Graham Johnson’s notes are succinct but characteristically interesting and entertaining. However, it’s a pity someone didn’t proof read them a bit more carefully for there are a surprising number of typographical errors. As I mentioned earlier, no texts are supplied. Despite the clarity of Ms Lott’s singing I think that’s a pity.

And from where does the title of the programme come? Dame Felicity is widely known in the profession as “Flott”. Here, she and Graham Johnson make a very slight alteration to the text of a Jerome Kern song, which actually rhymes better with the text. It’s a nice little touch.

This is a captivating disc in which charm and sophistication are blended in equal measure. It’s one of the most enjoyable recital discs I’ve heard for a long time.

John Quinn

Full track listing:

Geoffrey BUSH (1920-1998) It was a lover and his lass [1:52]
Francis POULENC (1899-1963) Fancy [1:48]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976) Fancie [0:58]
Mervyn HORDER (1910-1997) Under the greenwood tree [1:37]
Charles GOUNOD (1818–1893) The fountain mingles with the river [1:37]
Reynaldo HAHN (1875-1947) The swing [1:44]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921) Cherry Tree Farm [2:23]
Frank BRIDGE (1879-1941) O that it were so [2:13]
Antony HOPKINS (b. 1921) A melancholy song [0:54]
Noël COWARD (1899-1973) If love were all [5:44]
Jerome KERN (1885-1945) You can’t make love by wireless [3:13]
Madeleine DRING (1923-1977) Song of a nightclub proprietress [2:49]
Samuel BARBER (1910-1981) Solitary hotel [2:35]
Irving BERLIN (1899-1989) What’ll I do [3:32]
Cole PORTER (1891-1964) Miss Otis regrets [2:48]
John MUSTO (b. 1954) Litany [3:50]
George WARE (1829-1895) The Boy in the gallery [2:42]
Noël COWARD Mad about the boy [4:55]
Sir Arthur BLISS (1891-1975) The return from town [2:05]
Cole PORTER The physician [4:09]
Lord BERNERS (1883-1950) Come on Algernon [3:04]
Michael FLANDERS (1922-1975) and Donald SWANN (1923–1904) A word on my ear [4:35]
Irving BERLIN I love a piano [3:22]
Jerome KERN Call me Flo’(tt) [1:34]
Ivor NOVELLO (1893-1951) Bees are buzzin’ [3:13]
Herman HUPFELD (1894-1951) Let’s put out the lights [2:14]
Noël COWARD The party’s over [1:40]