Sarah Connolly can be relied upon for judicious recitals of song (British or otherwise), and so it proved in this programme of settings by (mainly) British composers that ranged freely and imaginatively over one-hundred-and-twenty-five years of settings centred on various manifestations of sleep.
Opening with the elegant nostalgia of Stanford’s ‘A soft day’ (1913), the first group continued with a limpid rendering of ‘Weep you no more, sad fountains’ (1896) by Parry – a prolific and by no means inconsiderable song-writer. Vaughan Williams’s setting of Rossetti’s ‘Love-Sight’ (1903) is among the most elaborate of his earlier songs, with Connolly as attentive to its high-flown lyricism as to the disarming poignancy of Gurney’s ‘Thou didst delight my eyes’ (1921).
Beginning with the plaintive recollection of Somervell’s ‘Into my heart an air that kills’ (1906), the second group continued with ‘Come to me in my dreams’ (1906) as finds the young Frank Bridge at his most warmly expressive. Due contrast was provided by Herbert Howells’s luminous ‘Goddess of Night’ (1920), then by the searching fatalism typical of later Bridge in ‘Journey’s End’ (1925).
Gustav Holst’s ruminative take (1929) on this same Yeats poem is appreciably less stark, so making for a pointed contrast to Britten’s ‘A Charm of Lullabies’ (1947) – most deftly poised among his numerous song-cycles, here afforded revealing context by two additional settings rejected from the definitive sequence. The prolix ‘A Sweet Lullaby’ is no great loss, but the taciturn emotion evinced in ‘Somnus, the humble god’ suggests a notable rediscovery which might well have enhanced the cycle through opening-out its expressive ambit still further; both these Britten ‘extras’ were world premieres, and are already recorded on Chandos (Dreams link below).
All this Proms season’s lunchtime recitals feature a BBC commission from a woman composer; two premieres in this instance, even if Lisa Illean’s setting of Osip Mandelstam in ‘Sleeplessness … Sails’ (2018) is more intent on repetition of phrases and motifs for sustaining atmosphere without any intensification of the overall mood. Half the length, Mark-Anthony Turnage’s setting of Stevie Smith’s ‘Farewell’ (2016, not BBC-commissioned, and also on Chandos) accesses the heart of the matter much more effectively – not least in its capturing the deadpan humour and whimsical profundity which Smith's mature writing possesses in abundance.
Both songs were persuasively rendered by Connolly, who also ensured they were subsumed into the main recital rather than merely bolted-on extras. Throughout, Joseph Middleton’s sensitive and nuanced pianism provided ‘accompaniment’ of the highest order.