You know, of course, why the left leg of a roast partridge is always the plumpest and most tasty? Because that’s the leg the bird stands upon when it rests. Amazing what you learn at a concert by I Fagiolini.
This was just one of a number of gems of culinary wisdom that make up the text of Jean Francaix’s extraordinary Ode à la gastronomie: a twenty minute a capella hymn to gluttony based on texts by the French foodie-extraordinaire Brillat-Savarin and set to music that swung from parodies of Chopin and mock-triumphant climaxes to passages that sounded like something you might hear from a Gallic equivalent of the Swingle Singers. It’s a tour-de-force, and I Fagiolini – who’ve just made the first ever recording of the piece – performed it with wit, precision and (when the music called for it) lip-smacking relish.
That applied to this whole evening of French song: I Fagiolini are a virtuoso outfit, and they found endless subtleties of tone and verbal colouring in a pair of sensual, surrealist song-cycles by Poulenc and two impressionistic early partsongs by Milhaud. Tenor Nicholas Hurndall Smith and pianist Anna Markland gave stylish accounts of a pair of Fauré melodies, and the whole ensemble accompanied Markland in a vocal transcription of the slow movement of Ravel’s G major Piano Concerto.
Markland picked out her solo part gracefully as the voices soared and swelled, forming a lush, luminous cushion of sound. The words? Sadly, we weren’t told. And although texts and translations for all the other items were (quite properly) included in the programme, this wasn’t the only moment when skilfully-operated surtitles might have transformed a very enjoyable performance into something genuinely unforgettable.