‘Fêtes Galantes’ is one of those glorious French phrases that sounds so wonderful but is nigh on impossible to translate. Rather than having any concrete meaning, it evokes Watteau-esque imagery of woodland gatherings, where eighteenth-century aristocrats amuse themselves by flirting, dancing and making music. As such, it provided an excellent title for this concert at Wigmore Hall: not because the performers were decked out in harlequin costumes – although soprano Sophie Daneman’s dress might easily find a place in a Watteau canvas – and staring into each other’s eyes; but rather because its programme, a mélange of 17th-century airs de cours and late 19th-century chansons, had no real overarching meaning or theme, except that it provided a glorious evocation of French culture, and sounded so wonderful.

Daneman and Ian Bostridge were joined on stage by lutenist extraordinaire Elizabeth Kenny for the concert’s first half, which consisted entirely of music by 17th-century French composers. Seated either side of Kenny and her enormous theorbo, the singers performed duets, solo songs, and remained silently flabbergasted when their accompanist took on a solo role herself. It was a lovely setup, providing us with the opportunity to hear Bostridge singing outside of his firmly established Pearsian repertoire, but equally, to hear some beautiful but obscure music. Indeed, as the first half whizzed by without a break for applause, I realised that this music’s soundworld is as far from what we’re used to hearing nowadays as to render it, like Watteau’s paintings, almost exotic.

Perhaps the singers thought so too: I felt they took a little time to get themselves into the duet style of Sébastian Le Camus and Etienne Moulinié, not quite connecting on their off-beat entries and improvised ornaments, as they were to do so well a little later. However, they both sang beautifully, and communicated the troubadour-esque lovesick striving of the poetry. Their engagement with the music waxed and waxed, through three Michel Lambert airs, to peak in Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s trio of songs. Posterity has been kinder to Charpentier than any of the aforementioned composers, and from our singers’ performances of their solo songs in particular I deduced that they believe this is for good reason. Bostridge pulled out all the stops in a powerful ‘Triste deserts, sombre retraite’, and Daneman played the naïve coquette exceptionally in ‘Sans frayeur dans ce bois’. A scene from Jean-Baptiste Lully’s opera Atys provided a perfect end to the half: Quinault’s libretto, Lully’s stately yet understated music, and the performers’ spotless interpretation of it, ensured that this was the height of the evening’s gallantry.

If the singers took some time to acclimatise themselves to the style, Elizabeth Kenny certainly didn’t. Courtly baroque music is the lutenist’s natural habitat, and so it is quite understandable that she was in the driving seat, despite her role as accompanist. She emphasised the true interest of this music, which lies in the fluidity of the interchange between voice and lute/theorbo/guitar. Moreover, the refreshing interludes of solo theorbo works provided exquisite relief from all those tales of impossible courtly love; and her performance of Francesco Corbetta’s Chaconne can only be described in modern terms as face-melting. Kenny was the half’s centrepiece: her tender, intricate, inimitable playing was subtly commanding and instrumental to this unique concert’s opening half.

Of course, the big question, as we jumped forward in time 200 years for a second half of Debussy and Fauré songs, was ‘will it work?’ As Graham Johnson, to whom Kenny had ceded her place, played the opening notes of Debussy’s Fêtes Galantes song sets, the grand piano’s sound was an immense shock. However, Wigmore Hall’s acoustic, incomparable as it is for the piano, Johnson’s light-as-a-feather touch (impeccable throughout), and Debussy’s impressionistic harmonic wash, quickly disspelled any question of worrying about clashing musical styles. Daneman and Bostridge alternated singing and appreciating the other’s singing whilst seated on stage, but it was the soprano who truly blossomed in Debussy’s vocal style, emanating a wondrous enjoyment of the music she sang so vibrantly. The ever-expressive tenor’s Debussy suffered from being too low-pitched, but the haunting ‘Colloque sentimental’ was exquisite all the same. Fauré’s ‘Clair de Lune’ was better situated for Bostridge, who unleashed more and more power as he sang of a tortured Verlaine’s plight in ‘Prison’ and Armand Silvestre’s plaint in ‘Fleur jetée’. Fauré’s chansons seem far more songlike than Debussy’s tone-paintings, but this well-chosen selection expressed an intensity of feelings that ranged from the nihilistic to the serene, the dainty to the impassioned. After Daneman’s particularly radiant performance of ‘Notre Amour’, the singers joined forces again for the duet ‘Puisqu’ici tout âme’, their voices blending intoxicatingly in the swells of the refrain and enchanting the audience into rapturous applause. This exceptional concert was summed up in a lighter-than-air Saint-Saëns encore, describable only as charmant! charmant!

Sophie Daneman soprano; Ian Bostridge tenor; Elizabeth Kenny lute; Graham Johnson piano, at Wigmore HallDavid Fay reviews 'Fetes Galantes', a French vocal concert at Wigmore Hall featuring Sophie Daneman, Ian Bostridge, Elizabeth Kenny and Graham Johnson.4