Songs by Richard Rodney Bennett, Benjamin Britten, Ivor Gurney, Michael Head, Herbert Howells, John Ireland and Peter Warlock
Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano) & Malcolm Martineau (piano)
Recorded 1 & 2 February 2011 in All Saints Church, East Finchley, London
Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson
Reviewed: November 2011
CD No: CHANDOS CHAN 10691
Duration: 63 minutes
There may be a current shortage of certain types of voices but lyric mezzo-sopranos are not among them. Young singers of this voice type predominate in competitions and the standards of technique and musicianship which prevail among graduates, particularly in the United States, are something to behold. The requirement for hard work should not be under-estimated of course. Sarah Connolly certainly had to endure some galley-years before she broke through into the sunlight. She is an enviable example of this clan of quality mezzos, now pre-eminent among her peers.
This disc comprises Sarah Connolly’s personal choice of English songs, as she makes clear in the booklet note. The contents are unified less by any thematic idea than her own taste. The choice of songs is generally conventional: there are no hidden discoveries here among the works of deceased composers, though Ivor Gurney’s By a Bierside, written in the trenches, was not published until 1979.
The lion’s share of the wholly original music belongs to Herbert Howells. Songs comprise a small part of this composer’s oeuvre, most of them written early in his career but Connolly has chosen four songs which are a distillation of a talent which was later to be sublimated in his choral works. King David is a narrative masterpiece. Connolly proves a fine story-teller, while Malcolm Martineau treats the piano part as a vivid commentary: he imitates the glorious array of harps and the king’s slow tread through the park, above which the haunting song of the nightingale stands out, all beautifully balanced with the voice. In Come sing and dance, a setting of a traditional Christmas text, the vocal part’s ecstatic melismas in a high tessitura set a considerable test for the singer, while the pianist weaves an improvisatory web of dancing rhythms, before sharing the singer’s fervent rejoicing. The union of the two artists here is impressive. The extroversion of much of this song is unusual for Howells. Lost love is more characteristic: the final reprise of the opening stanza sounds like a memory gradually fading into the distance, the spare accompaniment disappearing at the end, leaving the voice alone. Gavotte trips lightly on its feet; the decorative invention of the dance music which supports the vocal part is irresistible.
The John Ireland songs show the high quality of his word-setting. Tryst is an excellent example, with the piano’s introduction foreshadowing the sultry atmosphere described by the poet, into which the voice gently glides. The setting of Hardy’s Her song is superficially unsophisticated in its folksy repetitions but Connolly loses no opportunity to reflect with subtly changing tone-colours the woman’s feelings, from innocent happiness to despair, the final notes drained of resonance. By contrast, the song which gives its name to the collection, My true love hath my heart, is launched by Martineau with potent opening chords which are reminiscent of one of Richard Strauss’s rapturous Lieder.
Connolly’s many merits are by now well established: rich, noble tone production, impeccable enunciation, command of style and a keen intelligence. She can lend distinction to even the simplest melody, as is demonstrated by the Britten folksong arrangements.She inevitably attracts comparison with Janet Baker, whose landmark “Anthology of English Song” issued in 1963 on the Saga label, includes her interpretation of four of these songs with Martin Isepp. Though Connolly does not have the unique individuality of sound nor quite the soulfulness which is present in her predecessor’s recordings, she is as scrupulous a musician.
Gurney’s setting of John Fletcher’s Sleep is justly admired. It is perhaps here that Connolly comes closest to Dame Janet’s performance; the shaping of the poet’s appeal is perfectly measured. In By a Bierside the initial fortissimo climax immediately followed by the sinuous lament of “Death makes the lovely soul to wander” demonstrates vocal control of a high order. There is not too much here in a lighter vein apart from Michael Head’s Cotswold Love, though Connolly and Martineau find a hint of frivolity in Warlock’s setting of the nativity song First Mercy.
Richard Rodney Bennett’s A history of the Thé Dansant is a stimulating work. The poems are by the composer’s sister, inspired by the discovery of some snapshots of their parents on holiday in the South of France in the 1920s with their friend Roger Quilter. The poetry catches the chatter of conversation in high society convincingly. It is a decidedly heavy sing though; the tessitura in the opening song ‘Foxtrot’ is broad, with difficult intervals and a demand for exceptional breath control. Connolly’s voice, now in its prime, is free of any surface blemishes and it is sturdy enough not to suffer any distortion when put under pressure, something which the composer’s writing does periodically subject it to. In the closing ‘Tango’ a powerful climax is shared with the piano. Between these two highly rhythmic songs, ‘Slow foxtrot’ sees the character of the music change, slithery chromaticism replacing forceful rhythms. Connolly switches deftly to slinky eroticism. Martineau conveys the appropriate feeling of artificiality in his contribution.
This diverse miscellany of English songs is well worth investigating. It has been given an ideally balanced recording.