The regal trumpets and sackbuts sound their bold herald and, followed by admiring eyes, the powers of state and church begin their dignified procession along a sloping walkway to assume their lofty positions upon the central dais.
Forty-one years is a long time for any partnership to be sustained and to flourish — be it musical, commercial or marital! And, given The Hilliard Ensemble’s ongoing reputation as one of the world’s finest a cappella groups, noted for their performances of works dating from the 11 th century to the present day, it must have been a tough decision to call an end to more than four decades of superlative music-making.
Star singer and star composer, a combination guaranteed to bring in the fans. Christian Gerhaher sang Mahler at the Wigmore Hall with Gerold Huber. Gerhaher shot to fame when he sang Wolfram at the Royal Opera House Tannhäuser in 2010.
Connell was South African born, based on London for much of her career and with strong ties to Australia, so that the friends and pupils who came together at St John’s Smith Square on 27 April 2013 to celebrate her memory were many and varied.
Proceedings opened with Aivale Cole, one of Connell’s pupils, singing an unaccompanied traditional Samoan piece Lota Nu’a, a powerful and affecting way to open.
Kathryn Harries was the master of ceremonies, introducing items, reading extracts from Connell’s obituary and providing other memories as well as contributing her own solo. The first half of the concert consisted of extracts from operas which were associated with Connell. Sylvie Valayre opened things with "La luce langue" from Verdi’s Macbeth accompanied by Phillip Thomas. A highly dramatic and vivid performance, displaying Valayre’s strong, dark toned voice. The result was sometimes rather stormy and lacked the superb sense of line that I remember from Connell’s own performance of the role.
Veteran tenor Thomas Moser sang "Mein lieber Schwann" from Wagner’s Lohengrin. A very heroic yet beautiful performance, Moser singing with a fine sense of line, burnished tone and ringing top. Baritone David Wakeham contributed Nabucco’s "Dio di Giuda" from Verdi’s opera, singing with a lovely line combined with a vibrant voice and expressive phrasing. He was accompanied by Mark Packwood. Kathryn Harries sang the Kostelnicka’s "Co chvila" from Janacek’s Jenufa. The Kostelnicka was a role which Harries shared with Connell. Harries gave us an intense scena, dramatic and rather brilliant.
After readings for Connell’s obituary in the Guardian, Richard Wiegold sang King Mark’s "Wozu die Dienste ohne Zahl" from Tristan und Isolde accompanied by Stephen Rose. This was a very fine, complex and profoundly moving performance. Wiegold singing with a lovely dark, burnished voice. Tenor Stuart Skelton, with Phillip Thomas at the piano, performed Florestan’s "Gott, welch Dunkel hier" from Beethoven’s Fidelio. Skelton sang with lovely, bright ringing tones, combining power with intensity and subtlety.
The last item in the first half was a role which Connell had come to rather late, but which had become one of her core roles, Turandot. Her pupil, Elisabeth Meister, sang Turandot’s "In questa reggia". Though I never heard Connell as Turandot, Meister’s gleaming tone and superb sense of line recalled what I remember of the virtues of Connell’s singing. It was a vibrant performance, implacable yet not strident, with impressive evenness of control.
For the second half, the concert tried to encompass other aspects of Connell’s character and art, starting with her sense of humour. We opened with a remembrance of her from Peter Robinson, then Robinson and Linnhe Robinson (members of a dining club with Connell), playing the Faure / Messager Souvenirs de Bayreuth. A delightful way of including to a reference to the Ring cycle in the concert (Brunnhilde and Sieglinde being amongst Connell’s roles).
Further humour followed, with Yvonne Kenny giving a delightful performance of Gershwin’s By Strauss accompanied by Linnhe Robertson. A masterly performance with a lovely shaped line combined with a fine attention to the words.
Fiona James, who had sung Adalgisa to Connell’s Norma on tour in Australia, gave us some charming examples of Connell’s sense of humour. James went on to announce details of the Elizabeth Connell Prize. Under the terms of Elizabeth’s Connell’s will, this is to encourage and assist aspiring dramatic sopranos of the world. The final of the inaugural competition will take place in 2014 in Sydney when five singers will compete for a prize of 20,000 Au$. The Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge Foundation will administer the prize, and in fact Richard Bonynge was present at the concert in St John’s Smith Square.
More humour followed, with David Wakeham returning, accompanied by Mark Packwood, to give masterly performances of Tom Lehrer’s She’s my girl and I take your hand in mine, with nicely pointed words combined with a lovely line and a wonderfully deadpan manner.
Connell’s work as a recitalist was honoured in the next segment of the programme. Christine Teare and Mark Packwood gave a big-hearted performance of Richard Strauss’s Allerseelen. Morgan Pearse, accompanied by Eugene Asti, displayed an amazingly dark and vibrant baritone voice in a moving performance of Finzi’s Fear no more the head of the sun.
Penelope Randall-Davis, accompanied by Stephen Rose, gave a vibrant account of Handel’s "Ma quando tornerai" from Alcina. Jeffrey Black and Eugene Asti gave a rather operatic performance of Schubert’s Standchen. Tessa Uys, a friend of Connell’s from South Africa, gave a poetic account of Schubert’s Impromptu in G flat, D 899.
Turkish soprano Tulay Uyar is another of Connell’s pupils. She has a lovely bright toned lyric voice and gave a vividly dramatic account of "Tiger! Wetze nur die Klauen" from Mozart’s Zaide, accompanied by Richard Hetherington. Two Massenet songs came next. Tenor Julian Gavin and Linnhe Robertson in "Pensée d’automne" and Sally Silver and Eugene Asti in a lovely account of "Ivre d’amour".
Thomas Moser, accompanied by Phillip Thomas, sang "She walks in loveliness" by Ernest Charles. And the solo contributions concluded with Sally Silver accompanied by Tessa Uys singing a traditional South African lullaby "Thula Thula", a song associated with Connell’s youth.
Proceedings concluded with all the singers returning to sing the chorus "Va, pensiero" from Verdi’s Nabucco conducted by Peter Robinson with Stephen Rose at the piano. A fine conclusion to a memorable concert in memory of a fine artist.
Elizabeth Connell Memorial Concert
Samoan Traditional: Lota Nu’u
Verdi: La Luce langue (Macbeth)
Wagner: Mein liebe Schwan (Lohengrin)
Verdi: Dio di Giuda (Nabucco)
Janacek: Co Chvila (Jenufa)
Wagner: Wozu di Dienste ohne Zahl (Tristan und Isolde)
Beethoven: Gott, welch Dunke hier (Fidelio)
Puccini: In questa reggia (Turandot)
Faure/Messager: Souvenirs de Bayreuth
Gershwin: By Strauss
Tom Lehrer: She’s my girl
Tom Lehrer: I take your hand in mine
Richard Strauss: Allerseelen
Finzi: Fear no more the heat of the sun
Handel: Ma quando tornerai (Alcina)
Schubert: Impromtu in G flat, D 899
Mozart: Tiger! Wetze nur di Klauen (Zaide)
Massenet: Pensee d’automne
Massenet: Ivre d’amour
Ernest Charles: She walks in loveliness
Trad: Thula Thula
Verdi: Va, pensiero, (Nabucco)
Aivale Cole (soprano)
Sylvie Valayre (soprano)
Thomas Moser (tenor)
David Wakeham (baritone)
Kathyrn Harries (soprano)
Richard Wiegold (bass)
Stuart Skelton (tenor)
Elisabeth Meister (soprano)
Yvonne Kenny (soprano)
Christine Teare (soprano)
Morgan Pearse (baritone)
Penelope Randall-Davies (soprano)
Jeffrey Black (baritone)
Tulay Uyar (soprano)
Julian Gavin (tenor)
Sally Silver (soprano)
Peter Robinson (conductor/piano)
Phillip Thomas (piano)
Mark Packwood (piano)
David Gowland (piano)
Richard Hetherington (piano)
Stephen Rose (piano)
Linnhe Robertson (piano)
Eugene Asti (piano)
Tessa Uys (piano)
St. John’s Smith Square, London
27 April 2013