The Music Makers, Op.69
Sea Pictures, Op.37
Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano)
Bournemouth Symphony Chorus
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
Recorded 7 & 8 January 2006 in The Concert Hall, Lighthouse, Poole
Reviewed by: Mike Wheeler
Reviewed: March 2007
CD No: NAXOS 8.557710
Duration: 63 minutes
The pairing of “The Music Makers”, with its big solo for mezzo-soprano, and “Sea Pictures” (written for Clara Butt) is a logical one, but to my knowledge it has previously been done only by Felicity Palmer and Richard Hickox on EMI, and Linda Finnie and Bryden Thomson on Chandos. Of course any mezzo recording either work has Janet Baker’s formidable legacy to contend with, but Sarah Connolly has no reason to fear the comparison. She has established an enviable reputation both in opera and concert, in wide-ranging repertoire that has taken in Monteverdi, Brahms and Mark-Anthony Turnage. Her contribution to both works here radiates warmth, intelligence and humanity.
Simon Wright launches “The Music Makers” with a passionate surge of energy, and the chorus’s first entry is beautifully hushed, even if the singers don’t quite manage the edge-of-seat frisson of the Hallé Choir in its recording with Mark Elder on the Hallé’s own label. Conversely, Sarah Connolly’s first entry, at “They had no vision amazing” has a tenderness beside which Jane Irwin, on the Hallé disc, is just a bit matter-of-fact.
The reading has plenty of drama and energy when required, and the withdrawn close of the work is beautifully done. The Bournemouth strings sound a touch thin in high-lying passages, and the choral tone is less well blended than that of the Hallé Choir. In general, then, if it’s the choral or orchestral contribution that most interests you, go for Elder and the Hallé. But for a deeply involving account of the solo part, Connolly is the ace in Naxos’s hand.
Curiously “The Music Makers” is not mentioned on the front of the card outer-sleeve, and the booklet cover has the title of the larger work in smaller print. “Sea Pictures” is evidently intended as the disc’s main selling-point. I would have preferred “The Music Makers” to follow rather than precede “Sea Pictures”; in any case, the break between them is too short.
“Sea Pictures” has been on the receiving end of some fairly sniffy condescension, mainly on account of the second-rate verse Elgar chose to set. But Connolly sings with such commitment that any doubts are, at least temporarily, put on hold. To begin with I did wonder whether the opening ‘Sea Slumber Song’ was going to be too slow, but it achieves a magical tranquillity, and Connolly manages to sound maternal without being matronly. The two smaller songs, ‘In Haven’ and ‘Where Corals Lie’ have charm and delicacy, while in the centre-piece, ‘Sabbath Morning at Sea’, Connolly finds a touching vulnerability in a song that can easily sound merely portentous. The final setting, ‘The Swimmer’, has just the right mixture of turbulence and exhilaration (in spite of occasionally tentative orchestral entries), the clunky and forced rhymes of Adam Lindsay Gordon’s poem brushed aside by the conviction of the performance; Connolly takes the alternative top A at the end (on the words “where no love wanes”) – thrillingly.
Al in all, then, this is Sarah Connolly’s disc, and no-one who responds to warm, intelligently phrased singing will be disappointed. Texts are included in the booklet.