Recorded in collaboration with Sarah Connolly’s alma mater, this luminous recital celebrates a clutch of composers with whom the distinguished mezzo-soprano shares RCM connections. With the exception of Mark-Anthony Turnage, whose Stevie Smith setting, ‘Farewell’, was written especially for this recital, the chronology is quite narrow: only sixty-five years separate the births of Hubert Parry (1848) and Benjamin Britten (1913), with the remaining thirteen composers represented born between those extremes.
Given the disparate fare, there are surprisingly few duds among the twenty-nine selections. Indeed, the sequence is a miracle of planning that has woven a coherent programme out of fragments. Some of the texts, however, are forgettable. Stanford’s melody for ‘A soft day’ far outstrips the nugget of cheap birthday-card poetry of Winifred Mary Letts (“And the soaking grass smells sweet / Crushed by my two bare feet”) while who can say why Humbert Wolfe’s maudlin and derivative corpse poem Journey’s End appealed to both Frank Bridge and Gustav Holst.
Another twice-heard text, ‘The Cloths of Heaven’ by W. B. Yeats, is set efficiently by Thomas Dunhill but becomes something altogether more inspired in Rebecca Clarke’s masterly treatment. The latter draws an especially tender reading from Sarah Connolly, who is at her most vocally rich and delicious throughout, while Joseph Middleton revels in the composer’s lush piano-writing and the astonishing power of its faltering, falling coda. Here are two exquisite minutes that should awaken many a listener to this half-neglected composer.
Although the five songs of Britten’s A Charm of Lullabies have more currency than most of the music here, they are still relatively rare. In form, taste and musical inspiration they outstrip most of the competition, yet above all else it’s the technical skill that astounds, as piano and voice intertwine with a subtlety that’s all too rare elsewhere. These insistent miniatures were composed around the same time as The Rape of Lucretia, a fact that shines through in the operatic inflections of the rapid-fire ‘A Charm’, which Connolly renders with the intensity of a skilled stage actress. As for the haunting final number, ‘A Nurse’s Song’, it’s surprising this isn’t more popular as a stand-alone given its stylistic kinship to both ‘O Waly Waly’ and the Serenade’s ‘Lyke-Wake Dirge’.
The release also includes first recordings of two settings that Britten omitted from the finished cycle, and while we can probably live without ‘Somnus, the humble god’, the other, ‘A Sweet Lullaby’, is a pearl with its rocking piano rhythms and wistful melodic line. Colin Matthews has intervened to polish the discarded rough scores; Connolly and Middleton give them a first airing of the utmost distinction.
Among earlier songs there’s a weighty account of John Ireland’s ‘Earth’s Call’ (1918) with its histrionic solo line and florid piano part. Connolly spins gold from the dramatic key change at “Look! Look! … they’re gone”, but the song ends up being too overstated for its text and the piano interlude (which Middleton plays with requisite grandeur) tips it towards bathos. Ireland’s quasi-courtly ‘The Three Ravens’ is all the better for being restrained, its lute-song mood a tasteful counterpart to the “derrie, derrie downe” lyric.
The number that gives the disc its title is by Frank Bridge, but despite some unexpectedly bluesy moments it is less memorable than several of Connolly and Middleton’s other choices. ‘Goddess of Night’ by Herbert Howells is a haunting miniature, while ‘All night under the moon’, the last of a distinctive trio of songs by Ivor Gurney, matches a gorgeously chromatic melody to a lilting accompaniment. It is good, too, to hear Michael Tippett’s Songs for Ariel in such sensitive performances. They are something rich and strange, and Connolly and Middleton make one wish he had composed a full opera of The Tempest.
Turnage’s new composition sits well at the close of a programme whose overall mood is predominantly reflective. It’s a true envoi, veined with sadness and impending death, and the composer’s bleak setting is soaked in finality right through to the knell of its closing “Ding dong bell”. If ever a recital ended with a full stop, it’s this. The booklet includes texts.