So many concerts of chamber music are dominated by music from the German tradition that it might be easy to forget the contribution of the French to the development of chamber works. On that level, at least, this enthusiastically-performed recital by the Nash Ensemble was tremendously interesting and thought-provoking.
Music from three different eras was represented: Berlioz from the mid-nineteenth century, Debussy and Ravel from the turn of the century, and Poulenc and Ibert from the second quarter of the twentieth century. The range of expression found by these composers in miniature forms is quite remarkable, and the Nash Ensemble deserves full credit for interesting programming.
Yet at times, I found the small-scale arrangement of Debussy's beloved Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune quite grotesque. The music of this composer really depends on an ability to effect considerable contrasts of dynamic and texture, but with only a string quartet, clarinet, harp, horn and oboe taking the place of a full symphony orchestra, the erotic sumptuousness of the score was missing in this performance. After all, this is meant to be a heady evocation of a faun's sexual exploits with a group of nymphs. The flautist could have stuck more accurately to Debussy's rhythmic groupings in the famous opening solo, and I found the violins' rendition of the central major key theme too angular. However, the harp glissandi and the horn, clarinet and oboe solos were expertly poised, adding atmosphere to a strangely uneven performance.
The main attraction of the concert was the appearance of Dame Felicity Lott to sing works by Roussel (whose texts were unhelpfully not included in the programme), Ibert and Berlioz. In the twilight of her career, Lott is as charming as ever with looks to match, and her interpretative abilities remain astonishing. Yet this programme did not always show her off in the best light. Roussel's Deux poèmes de Ronsard (for voice and flute) were interesting, if not exactly riveting. 'Rossignol, mon mignon' brought forth some evocative playing from the flautist, who mingled sensitively with Lott's voice, and 'Ciel, air et vent' had an earthily haunting style, with an undulating flute introduction. Lott was more at ease in the latter, showing a warmer tone than in the former, where the sound was a little thin. Ibert's Deux steles orienteés (also for solo flute and voice without further instrumentation) was an odd choice for a star singer, because the flute part is infinitely more interesting than the through-composed vocal line; the flautist made the most of the high leaping grace notes in 'Mon amante a les vertus de l'eau' and the flutter-tonguing of 'On me dit' (intended to evoke the wind). Still, Lott's response to the text was characteristically intelligent: the line 'je l'étriens, je la porte à mes lèvres' ('I hold it, I bring it to my lips'), for instance, was sung with a feel for both the sound of the words and the rhetoric of the phrasing.
Following this came an utterly riveting account of Poulenc's sextet for piano, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and French horn. Credit is due to the solo pianist, whose sense of style and attack was one of the major reasons for this immaculate performance. I especially enjoyed the Ensemble's deft rendition of the neo-classical dance section of the second movement and the fast stretta passage in the Finale. All six of the players responded sensitively to the needs of the others while showing the capacity for brilliant solo virtuosity.
After the interval, Ravel's Introduction and Allegro was also played with flair but the lack of a conductor led to wayward tempi, and some of the work's introverted qualities were overlooked. Still, there was much to enjoy: the harpist excelled in her extended cadenza and the clarinet solo was floated smoothly above the spiky pizzicato accompaniment of the lower strings.
The evening's main event was Berlioz's Les nuits d'étè, a group of love songs that were not originally conceived as a cycle but were gradually built up into the now-familiar collection of six songs by Théophile Gautier. The piece has been famously recorded by sopranos such as Jessye Norman, Regine Crespin and Kiri Te Kanawa, but for many the definitive account remains that of the mezzo-soprano Janet Baker, whose voice certainly suited the low-lying line of 'Le spectre de la rose' and 'Sur les lagunes' more than Felicity Lott's did at this performance.
Lott gave a mixed rendition, though there was much to enjoy. She captured the lightness of 'Villanelle' to perfection, perkily supported by the pulsing quavers of the clarinet, oboe and flute, and despite her lack of tone in the opening line of 'Le spectre de la rose', there was a simple glowing beauty to her singing, enhanced by the marvellous cello solo. Similarly, she overcame her struggle with the tessitura of 'Sur les lagunes' to capture the sad, plaintive character of the text, and was startlingly dramatic in the unaccompanied line 'How bitter is my fate!' in every stanza.
'Absence' was the highlight of the set: secure tone, easy ascents into the upper register and an emphatic delivery of the words were an indication that Lott is still able to match her greatest performances of the past. Sadly, poor intonation dogged the opening of 'Au cimitiere', but the characterisation was once more strong; and if Lott was occasionally drowned out by the over-enthusiastic first violinist in 'L'île inconnue', the opulence of her tone in the rest of the song compensated for it.
In all, a concert of great ambition, even if certain aspects of the performance didn't quite live up to expectation.