Sarah Connolly & Julius Drake at Wigmore Hall – Berlioz & Mahler

Les Nuits d’été, Op.7

Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano) & Julius Drake (piano)

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 13 January, 2014
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Sarah Connolly. Photograph: Peter WarrenIt must be a difficult task to evoke a hot summer night during Monday midday in January, but Sarah Connolly and Julius Drake were quickly to the heart of Berlioz’s evocative song-cycle to begin this BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert. Their performance of the first of the six songs, ‘Villanelle’, showed immediately their understanding of Berlioz’s musical language, with a lovely instance of rubato as Connolly sang “Et dis-moide ta voix si douce: Toujours!” (And tell me in your gentle voice: forever!).

Sadly the start of ‘Le spectre de la rose’ was disturbed by electronic gadgetry, an all-too-familiar interference at these concerts recently despite numerous polite requests to switch phones off, but Connolly and Drake were undeterred, the spell already cast as the elaborate piano line draped around the singer’s full tone. ‘Sur les lagunes’ was rich and dark, growing inexorably in power and with the utmost control, while ‘Absence’ was very deeply felt. Finally ‘L’île inconnue’ moved from the wide-eyed innocence of its opening to a world-weary outlook, a transition that was both natural and sadly inevitable.

Julius Drake. Photograph: Sim Canetty-ClarkeConnolly sang with control and restraint, varying her tone to a thicker sound where appropriate, and Drake responded keenly to every nuance. If the Berlioz cast its spell, their performance of Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder frequently reached a heart-stopping beauty. After an urgent account of ‘Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder!’ was tempered by the poet’s self-consciousness, very well caught by Connolly, we moved to a rapturous ‘Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft’, a heady combination of Drake’s sparkling right-hand figuration and Connolly’s gently soaring vocals. ‘Um Mitternacht’ probed deeper still, a cycle in one song as Connolly moved from a stern and troubled mood in the first verse to contempt in the second, almost spitting out the final syllable of the titular word. The sheer power of the final verse, the poet giving up his spirit, was overwhelming.

After the necessary relief of ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’ came the exquisite ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ (I am lost to the world). Drake set the remote and timeless scene in both the prelude and the postlude, letting the music hang on the air. Connolly’s singing was wonderfully pure. We almost did not need an encore – but there was a substantial treat in the form of ‘Urlicht’ from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, again performed with the utmost command and musicianship.

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