"If Fiordiligi and Dorabella had been Lieder singers ..." runs the supposition on which Graham Johnson has based his new programme for Felicity Lott, Ann Murray, Richard Jackson, and himself at the piano. Unveiled at the Wigmore Hall on Friday evening, it is based broadly on the situation in Mozart's Cosi fan tutte. Two sisters are tested for fidelity by their lovers, who pretend to go to war, then disguise themselves and seduce the girls, before revealing their true identities for a final reconciliation, everyone a bit wiser. If the premise is a touch oxymoronic - for the Lied is really a 19th century form - there is nothing very abstruse in the way it is worked out. The manipulative Don Alfonso keeps popping up not to sing but to speak, and there are musical extracts from Mozart's opera not involving the male lovers. Mozart apart, Johnson casts his net wide, taking in songs from Wolf s Italian and Spanish Songbooks, duets by Purcell, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Saint-Saens and Faure, as well as a few short, sharp shocks from the popular repertoire - some stylishly done by Lott and Murray in very passable American accents.
They are seasoned duettists, and the contrast between Lott's silvery, flowery warmth and the Murray's straighter, more incisive sound assists their blend as much as it defines their individuality. They complement each other. Murray has the sharper, more varied powers of characterisation, brought into play when she joined Lott on the repeat of "How can a little girl be good?", which she pointed up in a rude parlando. Murray's first go at Schubert's Singing Exercises, too, was hilariously rough, until she was told off by Johnson: "Pay attention to your diaphragm!" She could also be subtle, and deliberately undersang Wolf's "Ihr jungen Leute" as if she were genuinely concerned about her fragile lover going to war, not looking for laughs.
Richard Jackson had little singing to do until the second half, when he joined the women in Purcell's "No resistance is but vain", which, in Britten's realisation, they made rather a meal of. He also joined them in the trio, "Soave sia il vento" from Act One of Cosi, placed very effectively at the end of the programme, as a peaceful resolution. It's not exactly that in the opera, though it is a farewell, and so a perfect conclusion to a brisk and ingenious entertainment. Less expected, as an encore was a re-jigged version of Rossini's Cat Duet, as a flirtatious piece for Murray and Jackson, before Lott burst open the stage door to turn it into a three-way fight. If the humour was a bit broad, it was, after all, nearly Christmas.