United Kingdom Berlioz and Mahler, Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano), Julius Drake (piano),Wigmore Hall, London 13.1.2014. (JPr)
Berlioz – Les nuits d’été Op.7
Mahler – Rückert-Lieder
Berlioz named his only song cycle, Les nuits d’été after the title of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream as translated in French. Like that play the cycle is deceptively simple but has hidden depths. To be honest they were mostly a bit depressing for a chilly January lunchtime and – for me – the atmosphere of this lunchtime recital didn’t warm up until the final four of Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder and an encore from that composer, ‘Urlicht’. I had the impression that Sarah Connolly was not as used to the Berlioz and was more familiar with the Mahler.
In Les nuits d’été two lighter songs frame four others that are full of misery, longing and death. Undoubtedly they were given a deeply serious, imperious interpretation by this distinguished pairing of singer and pianist, Julian Drake. However I wonder whether a lighter touch to these songs might be possible and Connolly sounded surprisingly rather monochrome at times against Drake’s languid – and rather austere – accompaniment: I suspect there is room in these songs for more playfulness – and possibly some irony – that was a missed opportunity here.
Sarah Connolly brought a great profundity to even those lighter songs, the sweetly romantic and carefree ‘Villanelle’ and the concluding ‘L’île inconnue’ (‘The unknown isle’). Drake’s introduction to ‘Le spectre de la rose’ (‘The spectre of the rose’) was typically fine and a palpable chill seemed to accompany this ghost, as it also did, the ‘forme angélique’ (angelic form) that floats through the later song ‘Au cimetière’ (‘At the cemetery’). In between ‘Absence’ was quite disconcerting for the sense of separation from a loved one it expresses. The purity of Sarah Connolly’s singing revealed all the qualities of her formidable technique and her studied concentration on the narrative but the performance of these songs perhaps needed a more authentic French style as – for me – she didn’t fully embrace the passionate romanticism of this cycle as other interpreters might.
I was also just a little disappointed by ‘Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder!’ (‘Do not look into my songs!’) the first of the Rückert-Lieder; Connolly didn’t quite capture the mercurial nature of this miniature masterpiece despite Julian Drake buzzing away effectively at the piano – if you do not know the song, bees are building their honeycombs! However after this the interpretations of both pianist and singer seemed to gel as never before in this recital and the remaining four songs and the encore were close to perfection. The mezzo-soprano now showed a more profound musical connection with what she was singing and finally shook off all the morbidity of the Berlioz cycle for something more spiritual and with elements of divine revelation. Here Julian Drake’s excellent playing exquisitely matched her in clarity of expression and emotional concentration. These are, after all, five songs about love, beauty and the transcendental transience of everything that Mahler composed to texts by the German poet Friedrich Rückert. One song, ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ (‘I am lost to the world’), is probably the saddest of all songs in the classical ‘songbook’ whilst being the most beautiful and deeply moving when sung properly – as it was here.
‘Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft’ had a wonderful ‘gentle fragrance’ and – in perhaps the darkest of the songs – ‘Um Mitternacht’ (‘At Midnight’) Connolly brought to the phrases ‘nicht konnt’ ich sie entscheiden’ (‘I could not gain victory’) and ‘Herr über Tod und Leben’ (‘Lord over death and life’) an impassioned, dramatic conviction that only someone vastly experienced in opera can achieve. ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’ – a simple, highly personal love song for the composer’s wife, Alma – with its plea of eschewing beauty, youth or riches and loving for love alone was superbly nuanced with all the colour that was missing earlier in the recital. Finally the last lines of a highly meditative ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ were as contemplative and reverential as only the greatest performances can be. Drake’s calm but eloquent support helped focus the audience and resulted in the reflective silence that followed. They combined to perfectly recreate this rapt atmosphere during the well-deserved encore, a Wunderhorn song, ‘Urlicht’ (‘Primal Light’).
As a footnote: Because of Alma’s unreliable memoirs it was often suggested that ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’ dated from 1903 but Gerald Larner in his programme note does get this correct as August 1902; however it is more widely accepted – to cut a long story short – that Alma found the song deliberately hidden by Mahler in the score of Siegfried and not Die Walküre (as Larner repeats) that he hoped she would open.
For details of concerts at the Wigmore Hall go to http://www.wigmore-hall.org.uk/.
There is a repeat broadcast of this recital on BBC Radio 3 on Saturday 18 January at 1pm and it can be heard again on the i-Player by clicking here.