Classical: Thanks for the melodies

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WHEN CLASSICALLY trained voices sing in English, they normally change some of its vowels in order to produce a good, full sound. Only singing actresses, such as Julie Andrews, sing RP English. In art-song or opera, the composite vowel, or diphthong, makes the singing voice sound thin and ugly. So the genteel "o" in "rose" becomes rounder, and something has to be done with the "a" in "say".

It doesn't seem to work like that in French. Although French has no diphthongs, it does have unpromising nasal sounds, and the pinched "u" in "une", which native singers refuse to change even for the sake of song. Yet French composers have achieved something distinctive in setting their language, and the repertoire of the French melodie is very rich, as the pianist Malcolm Martineau and his (British) singers have been proving at St John's, Smith Square in a series running throughout this month and into March.

In one of the early recitals, on 8 February, the soprano Patricia MacMahon sang like a trouper (and sometimes like a trooper). She had lots of warmth and enthusiasm, so that Chabrier's "Espana" - using the same music as his orchestral piece - suited her well. But her French wasn't at all clear, and might have passed for a regional accent.

The tenor Harry Nicholl, replacing an indisposed Catherine Wyn-Rogers, sounded more at home with the language and less likely to have caused raised eyebrows in a Parisian salon, though he was not very expressive. Towards the end of Chausson's "Les papillons", even the prospect of a kiss failed to excite him. Whether the slow, indulgent tempi in Duparc's "Soupir" and "Extase" were his fault or Martineau's remains one of those mysteries endemic in song recitals.

The pianist in the most recent recital on Monday was Simon Over, who was sensitive and precise in Debussy's Ariettes oubliees with the young Scottish soprano Lisa Milne - a former pupil of MacMahon's and recently under contract to Scottish Opera. Her voice is supple, bright and sexy, very exciting when she soars above the stave, and it carried well.

By comparison, in Debussy's second set of Fetes galantes, the tenor Toby Spence sounded small and emotionally inhibited. Still, he sang Satie's five Ludions neatly and cleanly, and if his voice is given time to grow without losing its focus and sweetness, he'll be useful in a world short of agile tenors.

Each singer sang a setting of a fable by La Fontaine composed by Andre Caplet, best remembered as the man who orchestrated several works by Debussy. They sounded quite different from classic French songs - far from the restrained elegance of most melodies, they were over-written, with the piano part blunting virtually every point in the words by fussy illustration.