Arianna a Naxos
Da unten im Tale [Deutsche Volkslieder]
Alte Liebe, Op.72/1
Die Mainacht, Op.43/2
Von ewiger Liebe, Op.43/1
Trois jours de vendange
Quand je fus pris au pavillion
Gefaßter Abschied, Op.14/4
Trouble Man & Lost in the Stars [from Lost in the Stars]
Speak Low & I’m a Stranger here Myself [from One Touch of Venus]
Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano) & Eugene Asti (piano)
Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey
Reviewed: 3 October, 2005
Venue: St John's, Smith Square, London
Few places are colder than a half-full St John’s on an autumn evening. No matter, the warmth of Sarah Connolly’s singing and her eclectic programme soon made us forget the nip in the air.
As we know from her Handel live and recorded, Connolly has one of the creamiest, most voluptuous of voices, a real mezzo with a lower register which never has to strain to be heard. Judged purely as sound, this was some of the most sheerly beautiful singing one could hope to hear.
Opening with Haydn’s extended scena “Arianna a Naxos”, a degree of caution was immediately evident – this may have been due to the concert being recorded by Signum Records. Also the accompaniment from Eugene Asti was reliable rather than inspired. However, come the plangent “Ah, che morir vorrei” (Ah, how I long to die) Connolly had warmed to her task, sounding positively enthusiastic at the prospect and poured forth a glorious stream of tone.
Far more satisfying was the extended Brahms group, although the opening “Ständchen”, much loved by recitalists as an encore, lacked the essential carefree quality. However, the remainder of the group was deeply satisfying, especially ‘Down there in the valley’ (Deutsche Volkslieder), a case of art concealing art. The depth of Connolly’s lower register paid particular dividends in these songs – “Alte Liebe” (Old Love) had the patina of deep walnut. The group concluded with a lustrous “Von ewiger Liebe” (Of Eternal Love), quintessential Kathleen Ferrier territory. In fact the comparison of Connolly and Ferrier is an apt one: both of them Northerners, both genuine mezzos who initially made their names in eighteenth-century repertoire, and both with a delightfully warm and natural stage-presence.
The Reynaldo Hahn group, beautifully sung though it was, was altogether less successful, which may have been due to Connolly sounding far less at home in French than in German, but there is also a certain lightness of touch required in these songs even when Hahn is at his most serious as in these settings of Daudet and Verlaine. The recital’s surprising high point, however, was the Korngold, starting with “Glückwunsch” (Congratulation) to words by Richard Dehmel – he of “Verklärte Nacht” – voluptuous and soaring, both adjectives equally well applied to “Sterbelied” (Requiem) – a song so far from one’s austere expectations that I would like it sung at my own funeral!
After such riches it was rather a pity that the recital closed with four songs in English by Kurt Weill. Whilst there is no doubting the quality of Weill’s music or Connolly’s singing, Asti’s accompaniment was so strait-laced as to rob the music of its essential swing. It was rather like listening to someone speaking a language very correctly but with no understanding of its subtle inflections; all the more surprising since Asti is American and one would have thought the idiom second-nature to him.
Fortunately matters were redeemed by two enterprising encores, “Her Song” by the greatly underestimated John Ireland to words by Thomas Hardy and a song by the 14-year-old Britten. Exactly the sort of encores Ferrier might have given us.