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Reviews

Dame Sarah Connolly (mezzo soprano) and Joseph Middleton (piano): Proms Chamber Music 4, at Cadogan Hall
07 Aug 2018

Sarah Connolly and Joseph Middleton journey through the night at Cadogan Hall

The mood in the city is certainly soporific at the moment, as the blistering summer heat takes its toll and the thermometer shows no signs of falling. Fittingly, mezzo-soprano Dame Sarah Connolly and pianist Joseph Middleton presented a recital of English song settings united by the poetic themes of night, sleep, dreams and nightmares, juxtaposing masterpieces of the early-twentieth-century alongside new works by Mark-Anthony Turnage and Australian composer Lisa Illean, and two ‘long-lost’ songs by Britten.

Dame Sarah Connolly (mezzo soprano) and Joseph Middleton (piano): Proms Chamber Music 4, at Cadogan Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Sarah Connolly

Photo credit: Jan Capinski

 

We started in daylight though, with Charles Villiers Stanford’s ‘A soft day’. Middleton conveyed the folky wistfulness of the gentle first-inversion harmonies though Connolly took time to settle, and she seemed a little nervous in the opening phrases. This was her Proms debut recital and perhaps she had still to get the ‘feel’ of the acoustic and balance in a capacity Cadogan Hall. But, there was characteristic openness and warmth in the lower range - the falling minor sixth in the first phrase which conveys the poet’s thankfulness was fully of sincerity - and lustre as her voice rose, as well as attentiveness to the text: the free elongation of the ‘rain’ in the first statement of the refrain which closes both stanzas created lovely suspense before the gentle patter, ‘drip’, ‘drip’, fell lightly. The anonymous poet’s direct appeal to ‘Look how the snowy mountains/Heaven’s sun doth gently waste!’, in Parry’s ‘Weep you no more, sad fountains’, was similarly vibrant, and the twos-against-threes in Middleton’s accompaniment lilted lazily and beguilingly.

The piano introduction to Vaughan Williams’ ‘Love-Sight’ was similarly tender while the subsequent oscillations generated urgency and movement, and Middleton effected a persuasive change of mood at the volta of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s sonnet. Again, Connolly seemed somewhat uncomfortable in her middle range, and the intonation was at times unfocused, but she did use the rising phrases to create dramatic intensity. The anxious questions posed by Robert Bridges in the final stanza of Ivor Gurney’s ‘Thou didst delight my eyes’ were, similarly, effectively heightened. Connolly seemed to get fully into her stride with Sir Arthur Somervell’s ‘Into my heart an air that kills’, a setting from Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, the opening declamatory line of which was beautifully soft and well-centred. The memories triggered by the pastoral vista brought warmth, but also a poignancy which was deepened by Middleton’s sensitive expression in the piano postlude.

Frank Bridge’s ‘Come to me in my dreams’ was an early highlight in the recital, the vocal lines extending languidly accompanied by freely unfolding, bluesy piano harmonies. Matthew Arnold’s ardent appeal to his beloved to salve his uncertainties with a kiss upon his sleeping brow and say, ‘My love! why suff’rest thou?’, drooped down a seventh, heavy with rich emotion, but if here the hopeless longings of the day were becalmed, in the composer’s ‘Journey’s End’ Connolly distinguished effectively between the anxious questions and fears of the young boy and the troubling, regretted knowledge of his father who knows all too well what is to be found when the journey of life’s ‘done’. Herbert Howell’s ‘Goddess of Night’ was more consoling, the slowly rolling, dark-hued piano chords suggesting a peace that ran deep, and Gustav Holst’s ‘Journey’s End’ offered a less immediately anxious interpretation of Humbert Wolfe’s poem, as Connolly slipped with smooth lyricism through the scalic lines, with restrained vibrato but deep expression.

In the five songs of Britten’s Charm of Lullabies the mezzo soprano showed a real feeling for the composer’s approach to text-setting, and his wry, sometimes caustic, humour. In ‘A Cradle Song’ Connolly moved evenly across registers above Middleton’s asymmetrical ‘rocking’, the bass ostinato of which straddled some bitter, dry intervals as the right hand circled restlessly before trickling upwards and into silence. The quirky skips and swing of ‘The Highland Balou’ were similarly anchored to insistent piano bass notes, and Connolly relished the idiosyncrasies of Robert Burns’ dialect, which she highlighted with flashes of vocal brightness. ‘Sephestia’s Lullaby’ was impressively off score, and Connolly confidently and clearly enunciated the rapid ‘nursery lines’ - ‘Mother’s wag, pretty boy/ Father’s sorrow, father’s joy’ - which separate three statements of the more reflective refrain, ‘Weep not, my wanton, smile upon my knee.’ The chromatic keenness of the latter was secure and pointed. The irony of Thomas Randolph’s ‘A Charm’, which Britten evokes in the piano’s bubbling, stabbing gestures and the singer’s extravagant commands, ‘Quiet! Sleep!’, which threaten - one imagines, futilely - the infant with hellish Furies that shall ‘lash thee to eternity’ if he does not succumb to sleep. Fortunately, the final unaccompanied stanza of ‘The Nurse’s Song’ was more peace-inducingly restful, and this song allowed us to enjoy the rich colours of Connolly’s mezzo as it crooned its increasingly more impassioned lullaby against the, at times, quasi exotic gestures and dissonances in the piano accompaniment.

Cradle of Lullabies was preceded by two songs which were originally destined for inclusion in the cycle, but which Britten later chose to exclude. He scored them through with a single pencil line suggesting omission but not complete rejection - as Connolly discovered when she examined the manuscript in the Britten-Pears Library. Now prepared for publication Colin Matthews, the songs received their premiere here at Cadogan Hall.

The piano’s easeful accompaniment of swinging arpeggios in ‘A Sweet Lullaby’, which sets selected verses of a poem printed by Nicholas Breton in an anthology of 1597, is deceptively soothing, though there are some intervallic piquancies, for the sentiments of the raw, expressive text - expressively shaped by Connolly, and conveying the poet-speaker’s pained concern and care for the child, as the melodic sank low - are melancholy: ‘Come, little babe, come, silly soul,/ Thy father’s shame, thy mother’s grief.’ The text of ‘Somnus, the humble god’, by the seventeenth-century poet, John Denham, employs some delightful triple rhymes and Britten captures the energy that this scheme creates in the wide distances between the forward-rolling low piano left hand and the high flourishes in the right, and in the voice’s fervent, insistent appeals which climax with the realisation that ‘Sleep, that is thy best repast,/ Yet of death it bears the taste,/ And both are the same thing at last.’ The piano’s final tierce de Picardie went some way to releasing the tension of the preceding troubled images.

And so, we arrived at the final pair of premieres. Lisa Illean’s ‘Sleeplessness … Sails’ is one of this year’s BBC commissions from women composers. Illean sets an untitled poem by Osip Mandelstam, in which the narrator, unable to sleep, reads an episode of the Iliad and finds his ‘suspended state of insomnia is lithely mingled with the image of a fleet of ships suspended mid-voyage, resembling a crane in flight. The Australian composer certainly creates a dream mood, in which fantasy is evoked by expansive registral contrasts in the piano, and the improvisatory quality of the accompaniments trickling lines, as well as by the slow presentation of the text by the voice. There is a strong sense of anticipatory stasis and if at times the vocal line seemed to drift and lack direction, that was probably the point, and the extended phrases were certainly precisely crafted by Connolly. The descent of the vocal line in the final stanza resonated with feeling - ‘And the sea, and Homer - all is moved by love.’, as the sea trembled and churned with increasing tempestuousness and vigour.

Connolly and Middleton bid us ‘Farewell’ courtesy of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s 2016 setting of Stevie Smith’s poignantly understated ‘Farewell dear friends’, the direct simplicity of which was emphasised by Connolly’s clear-voiced high vocal line and the sparseness of the piano accompaniment. Turnage’s instinctive responsiveness to the rhythms of the language was, as always, noteworthy, in the particular shaping of words and phrases, but also in the overall pacing of the song. The final verse was delivered with powerful directness and honesty by Connolly: ‘Sing ding dong farewell/ As a sweet bell.’

Claire Seymour

Dame Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano), Joseph Middleton (piano)

Stanford - ‘A Soft Day’ from A Sheaf of Songs from Leinster Op.140, Parry - ‘Weep you no more, sad fountains’ fromEnglish Lyrics Set 4, Vaughan Williams - ‘Love-Sight’ from The House of Life, Gurney - ‘Thou didst delight my eyes’, Somervell - ‘Into my heart an air that kills’ from A Shropshire Lad, Bridge - ‘Come to me in my dreams’, ‘Journey’s End’, Howells - ‘Goddess of Night’, Britten - ‘A Sweet Lullaby’ (world premiere), ‘Somnus’ (world premiere), Holst - ‘Journey’s End’, Britten - A Charm of Lullabies, Lisa Illean - ‘Sleeplessness ... Sails’ (BBC commission: world premiere), Mark-Anthony Turnage - ‘Farewell (world premiere).

Proms Chamber Music 4 at Cadogan Hall; Monday 6th August 2018.

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