Felicity Lott: Call Me Flott

Graham Johnson (Champs Hill Records CHRCD003)

17 March 2010 3 stars

Felicity Lott

At the age of 62, Dame Felicity Lott is still in command of a formidable instrument. The top of her soprano is less creamy than it was, but she still creates a beautiful sound, has excellent tuning and sings with crisp diction.

For her latest release, she's joined forces with regular pianist partner Graham Johnson for a CD of twenty-seven songs in the English language. They're all what might be classified as 'light music', though the difference between Gounod and Cole Porter is surely vast, and the recital is a kind of response to the lighter French and German repertoire – particularly operetta – in which Flott (if that's what we have to call her) has enjoyed great success in recent years.

The results are charming throughout and the disc is attractive, even if the soprano's interpretations are hardly definitive in light of the rich performance history of Noel Coward's 'Mad About the Boy', Porter's 'Miss Otis Regrets', and so on.

That's not to say that Flott doesn't understand how to communicate humour. Who could resist her hilarious performance of Flanders and Swan's 'A Word on My Ear'? The comic coloratura and the haughtiness of tone are easily despatched, and the very English humour of this piece plays to her strengths. And the soprano and her pianist are at one in the song, which is a parody of how opera singers get away with dreadful tuning (demonstrated by the pianist having to modulate throughout the piece in order to keep up with the singer!).

To my ears, Berlin's 'I Love a Piano' is less successful. Here, the eponymous instrument sounds surprisingly muddy, as it does on a number of tracks, and for all her efforts to enliven the performance with dramatic gestures, Flott just can't compete with the great American interpreters of this song. Much cleverer is 'Call Me Flo(tt)', a cleverly re-jigged version of a song by Jerome Kern, whose classical approach to popular song makes this a great vehicle for the soprano. I also hugely admire her rendition of 'If Love Were All', the Coward classic whose sincerity and elegant line are well suited to Flott's gifts.

Novello's 'Bees are Buzzin'' is, again, too heavy-handed for my taste, and compared to Julie Andrews's humorous version I just can't summon up enthusiasm for the way Flott and Johnson perform Porter's 'The Physician' from Nymph Errant. Similarly, to my mind it was unwise to attempt the much-performed 'Mad About the Boy' and 'Miss Otis'.

However, the first half of the recital is lovely. Bush's 'It was a Lover and his Lass' is performed like bubbly champagne, and Poulenc's 'Fancy' is nothing but a masterclass in the performance of the art song. Britten's 'Fancie' is done with a piquancy that absolutely matches the work, and I love the delicate shading Flott brings to Horder's 'Under the Greenwood Tree', even if the top is occasionally a little strained. It's lovely to have an example of one of Gounod's seventy English-language songs, 'The Fountain Mingles with the River': the dynamic duo seem to revel in the emphatic, flowing setting of Shelley's poem.

No less fluent is the performance of Hahn's enchanting 'The Swing', which has the air of a sultry summer's day, and here we can see how much Flott is still in complete control of her instrument. Saint-Saëns's 'Cherry Tree Farm' is also splendidly done: if only every singer were capable of creating this ideal mixture of a smooth line and a potent interpretation.

Overall, one can't help but be impressed by Felicity Lott's enduring talents, which are readily on display on this disc. The art songs are mostly immaculately placed, and my only reservation is that the more popular/musical theatre-type songs are simply too polite and 'classical' in approach. I also feel that Johnson's performances of the more arty numbers are more comfortable, though there seems to be a miking problem with the piano, which does not always sound as clear as it could. Still, Flott's fans will find much to enjoy here, and since I include myself amongst them I have plenty to celebrate.

By Dominic McHugh


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