This concert, in which Dame Felicity Lott presented four sets of songs with guitar accompaniment by Christoph Denoth, should have succeeded for any number of reasons. To begin with, Dame Felicity is an effervescent singer who, into her seventh decade, continues to radiate charm, intelligence, and technically assured subtlety.
Then there was the novelty of the program, which offered not only the chance to hear Mozart and Haydn's too-rarely performed Lieder, but the equally rare treat of hearing Dame Felicity essay John Dowland, whose works she has never to my knowledge recorded. Finally, Denoth is a specialist in Lieder accompaniment at the guitar—in 2003 he recorded many of tonight's works with soprano Martina Janková, showing a sensitive and reliable touch (An Den Mond, Universal / Philips 476 138-2). And he had revisited much of the Schubert repertoire at a concert with a student soprano during last year's Oxford Lieder Festival. By the looks of it, we were in good hands.
It was that much more startling, then, that the result was so disappointing. Denoth let his eminent singer down on numerous occasions, beginning with his intonation during the Dowland set, which left Dame Felicity to negotiate some quite jarring intervals between the strings. Her own pitch was often a smidge low—perhaps due more than anything to the contrast in timbre between piano and guitar. But her silvery soprano was a delight, never brittle or overproduced. She conveyed relish at the cheeky alliterations in Dowland's 'Fine knacks for ladies' ('Within this pack pins, points, laces and gloves' was particularly delicious). And her breath control was stunning, always ready for exploitation when the syntax warranted (as in the second verse of 'Flow my tears').
Unfortunately, as Dowland gave way to Mozart and Haydn, Denoth's discomfort showed all the more keenly. There was a false start to 'Das Veilchen', several glaring miscalculations in 'Abendempfindung', and countless passages choked off or simply garbled. All this plus his audible humming made for a quite excruciating concert. Occasionally during the Schubert set, the intimacy of the voice-guitar arrangement was unobscured by technical shortcomings, and the artful dissonance of 'Lied der Mignon' or the parallel modulations of 'Ständchen' gained from the new instrumentation. These moments, unfortunately, were few and far between.
I wanted to chalk up the disheartening execution to Denoth simply having underprepared, or the duo having underrehearsed, but that would not explain his botched codetta to the straightforward, strophic 'Heidenröslein', or—what was perhaps most surprising—audible, repeated errors within the solo guitar works with which he had presumably offered to intersperse the concert. That a singer with a known penchant for encores chose not to favor us with one says much about how she must have felt about the evening.