Wigmore Hall opening concert of 2016-17 Season – Sarah Connolly & Malcolm Martineau – Schumann, Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder, Berlioz’s Les Nuits d’été, Debussy, Poulenc

Fünf Lieder für eine Singstimme und Klavier, Op.40 [selections – I: Märzveilchen; II: Muttertraum; III: Der Soldat; IV: Der Spielmann]
Les Nuits d’été, Op.7
Chansons de Bilitis

Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano) & Malcolm Martineau (piano)

Reviewed by: David Truslove

Reviewed: 9 September, 2016
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Sarah ConnollyPhotograph: Peter WarrenOpening the new Season at Wigmore Hall, Sarah Connolly and Malcolm Martineau’s programme linked powerful emotions and serious themes drawn from Romantic Lieder and Mélodie.

For the most part this plan suited Connolly’s richly expressive voice and she strode through four selections from Robert Schumann’s Opus 40 with ease. Based on Hans Christian Andersen’s Danish originals (translated by Adelbert von Chamisso, better known for Frauenliebe und -leben, Schumann’s Opus 42), these austere verses attracted the composer who readily identified with their descriptions (almost confessions) of transience, maternal dilemma, death and madness. Connolly vividly brought to life the eagerness of the young lover and then found melting warmth for the hopes and fears of a young mother, where Connolly’s impressive low register caught the ear. The firing squad scene that is ‘Der Soldat’ never quite terrorised the senses, but the heartbreak of ‘Der Spielmann’ drew from Connolly a poignant response, engaging our sympathy for its bereft bride and fiddler with a loving tenderness and persuasive emotional intensity.

There was more of this in Rückert-Lieder, which illustrates Mahler’s refined sensibility to lyric poems, given here with matching sensitivity. Connolly sang with compelling musicianship and control, bringing lightness of touch to ‘Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder!’ and a soaring line to ‘Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft’. ‘Um Mitternacht’ could have benefited from a more gradual crescendo through the verses while ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’ was enchanting and ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ had all the remoteness necessary to bring off this exquisite setting.

Malcolm MartineauPhotograph: © Russell DuncanBerlioz’s Les Nuits d’été (to Théophile Gautier’s poetry) is the first song-cycle with orchestra, here with piano of course. Connolly responded to its passionate lyricism with mixed, but mostly positive, results. Her ‘Villanelle’ was sprightly and clean-voiced, so all the more surprising to hear hardness of tone creeping into her upper register in ‘Le Spectre de la Rose’ (and later in ‘L’île inconnue’), a problem that recurred every time she went above the stave and where the voice curdled and words distorted. She had more success in the funereal barcarolle ‘Sur les lagunes’, its bereavement achingly beautiful. Her sense of line and intonation were never in doubt, and it says much for any singer who can carry off the four longer and slower songs with this sustained intensity and poise.

Turning to Debussy’s highly sensual Chansons de Bilitis, Connolly gave us languor, eroticism and fervour, to which Martineau provided flexible support and wonderfully impish frogs in the opening ‘La flûte de Pan’.

Poor diction marred ‘Chanson d’Orkenise’, the first of Poulenc’s five enigmatic World War Two songs collected under Banalités. Its no-nonsense tempo provided a pointed contrast to the lethargy of ‘Hôtel’, its delicious melody beautifully drawn out by Connolly’s sultry tone. ‘Sanglots’ was dreamy and moving, while ‘Voyage à Paris’ provided much-needed humour.

By way of encores there was a song by Clara Schumann (‘Liebst du um Schönheit’, Opus 12) and one from Alma Mahler (‘Bei dir ist es Traut’).

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