Beginning with three songs by Albert Roussel, mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly and pianist Malcolm Martineau revealed the pervasive influences on French music and chanson at this time - the impressionistic cascading textures and drifting harmonies of Debussy, and the provocative rhythms and piquant harmonic twists of the music of Spain. In ‘Le bachelier de Salamanque’ (The Salamanca student), Martineau’s dry ripples, which occasionally expanded into outburst of warmth and colour, propelled the music forward, building to a poignant glissando flourish at the close which highlighted the pathos of final lines.
Here, and in the following ‘Le jardin mouillé’ (The drenched garden), Connolly modulated her tone to suggest something tantalisingly in-between indifferent and erotic, the French exquisitely pronounced. The joyous chords which open ‘Nuit d’automne’ (Autumn night) conveyed the richness of the golden sunset described - “the golden trees it stains with red” - but contrasting with this effulgence, Connolly found a sweetness to suggest the tenderness of love: “The dusk, on the roses,/ is so pure, so calm and so sweet,/ that noto one of them has closed - / and I pick one for you”. The tranquil sensuality of the close was deeply stirring: “and is still so warm/ that you could fall asleep naked.”
Fauré’s 'Le jardin clos' (The closed garden) followed. ‘La Messagère’ (The Messenger) aptly conveyed fleetness and vigour, through the energised nimble accompaniment, reaching vocal heights with the discovery of the beloved, “and her flower eyes open,/ resplendent in golden laughter”. Connolly’s burnished lower register mingled with Martineau’s rich accompaniment in ‘Dans la Nymphée’ (In the Grotto) while ‘Dans la pènombre’ (In the half-light) presented an insouciant contrast. Martineau was a typically sensitive accompanist throughout, never overwhelming the mezzo-soprano, even in the more tumultuous ‘Il m’est cher, Amour, le bandeau’ (My Love, the blindfold is dear to me). The gentle modalism of ‘Inscription sur le sable’ (Inscription in the sand) was most affecting.
Ernest Chausson’s theatrical ‘Chanson perpétuelle’ (Song without end) closed the first half of the recital; Martineau and Connolly balanced a symphonic majesty with delicate exchanges and reserved intimacy.
Though performed with consummate artistry and technical assurance, one couldn’t help feeling that the repertoire of the first part of this French sojourn was a little lacking in both variety and expressive depth. This is perhaps because of the innate equanimity and serenity of the material; but, Honegger’s Petit cours de morale (A little course in morals) offered a welcome epigrammatic diversion. Connolly’s focused low register was put to good effect in ‘Jeanne’, while ‘Adèle’ revealed the performers’ ability to derive the utmost variety of mood within the miniature form. Martineau’s slithering pianissimo gestures lent an ironic nonchalance to ‘Cécile’; and Connolly enjoyed the jazz-enthused vibrancy of ‘Rosemonde’, the closing phrase suggesting a world of possibility: “If you wish to discover the world/ close your eyes, Rosemonde”.
Poulenc’s passion for the poetry of Federico García Lorca was heartfelt but the composer professed: “What difficulty I have in showing my passion for Lorca in music”, “these three songs are of little importance in my vocal work”. He was referring to his Trois chanson de Federico García Lorca. Despite this authorial dismissiveness, the performers brought a thoughtful coherence to the three songs: ‘L’enfant muet’ (The dumb child) was marked by fragile tentativeness, ‘Adelina à la promenade’ (Adelina out walking) by a restless energy, and ‘Chanson de l’oranger sec’ (Songs of the dried-up orange tree) by a resonant nobility and declamatory grandeur.
Martineau made much of the musico-drama of the piano introduction to André Caplet’s ‘La croix douloureuse’ (The cross of pain); Connolly’s languid tone suggested the effort required by the poet=speaker to articulate his distress. Caplet’s accompaniment exploits the deep resonances of the piano and the contrasts between sonic reverberation and sparse brittleness, and the performers made much of the hollow self-sacrifice of the martyred protagonist: “I bow my head and I accept
the cross with which you assail me”.
Eric Satie’s Trois poems d’amour are characteristically dry and detached; Connolly and Martineau did not attempt to inject overly mannered nuances, but found some expressive meaning in the small gestures - such as the animated rising octave at the end of a phrase, or the oddly fanciful piano interjection.
Joseph Turina’s 'Tres arias' brought the concert to a close. In ‘Romance’, Martineau’s incessantly dramatic accompaniment was notable for the astonishing evenness of touch as the bass drove the music forward with muscular energy. In ‘El pescador’ (The fisherman) Connolly found an exquisite serenity to convey the fisherman’s alluring call to the fishermaiden: “come down to the shore/ and listen with delight/ to my song of love”.
The performance was marked by scarcely a blemish. But, while the technical accomplishments on display were unequivocal, and there was much intriguing and infrequently encountered material to digest, there was also perhaps a sense that we had not experienced the heights of Gallic representation of this varied and troubled epoch.