As part of Wigmore Hall’s Ravel Song Series, Sarah Connolly and James Newby shared a French programme, two contrasting versions of ‘L’invitation au Voyage’, both from 1870, framing settings of Symbolist verses by Ravel’s predecessors and contemporaries; a mélange of dreams and fantasies, erotic and nightmarish, leavened by the humorous and vividly-imagined Histoires naturelles.
Apart from the obvious symmetry of bookending proceedings with the same text, I began to wonder at the sense of including Chabrier’s version with its unusual combination of voice and piano – and bassoon – a singular part for Amy Harman. I was drawn more to her velvet-smooth countermelodies than to Connolly’s finely spun mezzo; and what a delightful setting this is, sensuous wind tone adding to the text’s reverie and desire. Earlier there had been mellifluous contributions from Adam Walker in two settings of ‘Une flûte invisible’. There was much to admire in Connolly and Walker’s eloquent response to Saint-Saëns’s gratifying melodic lines and to Caplet’s distinctive harmonic language – attractive pieces that needed more vocal colouring than Connolly could give – yet she sang well within her means. Walker left a memorable impression in ‘La flûte enchantée’ conjuring up the most delicate pianissimos and projecting softly purring low notes that gently underlined the title, Connolly adding fervour and poise and with much sensitive support from Joseph Middleton. ‘L’indifférent’ found Connolly at her most persuasive – sung with a haunting beauty that was room-stilling.
Singer and pianist had begun with absorbing accounts of Duparc and Debussy, Connolly’s dynamic and emotional range expanding for the highly sensual ‘Le chevelure’ and the wintry chill of ‘Le tombeau des naïades’, and Middleton conveyed wonderfully impish frogs in ‘La flute de Pan’. Yet it was in Debussy’s Trois mélodies where Paul Verlaine’s verses were stunningly brought to life.
On either side of the interval the stage was occupied by James Newby whose baritone brought richness of expression to Ravel and Duparc – utterly mesmerising in the latter’s ‘Extase’ perfectly capturing its languor with half-whispered phrases and finely-judged release of harmonic tensions. ‘La vague et la cloche’ revealed Duparc’s theatrical instincts still further in a reading that fully realised its Gothic horror quality, while ‘Phidylé’ ravished the ear, Newby not afraid to go for broke at the climax. In the little gems that are Histoires naturelles Newby and Middleton gave graphic evocations. Throughout, Newby combined impeccable technique and musicianship with striking characterisation, heard again in the sole duet, Fauré’s ‘Pleurs d'or’ (Tears of Gold), an agreeable encore.