United Kingdom Three Choirs Festival (7) Purcell, Watts, Gurney, Rasch, Howells, Novello, Wood. Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano), Joseph Middleton (piano), Holy Trinity Church, Hereford, 1.8. 2015 (JQ)
Song of the Widow
Purcell – Three Divine Hymns:
Lord, what is man?
We sing to him
An Evening Hymn
Timothy Watts (b. 1979) – Equal Mistress (2014) (excerpts)
Gurney – Sleep
Gurney – Three Cabaret Songs
Torsten Rasch (b. 1965) – A Welsh Night (Festival commission: world première)
Howells – Gavotte
Gurney – Thou didst delight my eyes
Ivor Novello – Glamorous Night
Haydn Wood – Roses of Picardy
The 2015 Three Choirs Festival has been bookended by recitals by two of the most distinguished of current British singers. Last Saturday afternoon Roderick Williams gave us ‘Song of the Hero’ (review). This afternoon, in the same venue, it was the turn of Sarah Connolly to offer a recital, ‘Song of the Widow’, which was in many ways complementary. Both recitals were excellent and expertly planned. I should also say at the outset, because these things can get overlooked, that just as Roderick Williams’ recital was enhanced by the pianism of Susie Allen so the equally marvellous Joseph Middleton performed a similar service for Sarah Connolly.
Gwilym Bowen has contributed perceptive programme notes for several of this week’s events. In his note for today he observed that this was a recital “over which the 20th century’s horrible wastage of life casts a long shadow.” The music chosen for this programme was mostly written in the twentieth- or twenty-first centuries but first Sarah Connolly took us back to the end of the seventeenth century, another turbulent period in European history, for three hymns by Purcell. All three were eloquently performed, the dark-hued quasi-recitative style of Lord, what is man? emerging in sharp profile at the hands of these two artists. The celebrated Evening Hymn benefitted even more than its two companion pieces from Miss Connolly’s lustrous tone in an expressive and poised rendition.
Sarah Connolly explained to us that the original programme had been through something of an evolution. As a result, the published programme – and its order – had changed somewhat. Equal Mistress by Timothy Watts is a cycle of six settings of poems by Ivor Gurney but in the event we heard just three today: numbers 1, 2 and 6. The first, ‘What’s in Time?’ has an often-impassioned vocal line, which is heard in tandem with a generally spare piano part. In ‘The Poet’ the piano writing is much more active, contributing to a greater degree of urgency in the music, as does the wide-ranging vocal line. In ‘The Mother’ I’m sure that I detected in the piano part a small thematic cell, repeated often and at different pitches, from the accompaniment to Gurney’s own song, Sleep. Watts’ music in this song is intense in nature and so was the performance it received. I’m sure that the composer, who was present, will have been pleased at the level of artistry that Sarah Connolly and Joseph Middleton brought to his music. I have to say, however, that despite their skilled advocacy these songs did not make a huge impression on me.
Given the thematic link which I’m sure I detected, it was very shrewd of Sarah Connolly to insert Gurney’s Sleep into the programme at this point – we had not been scheduled to hear it. This is, quite simply, the finest song that we heard all afternoon; indeed, I believe it to be one of the greatest of all English songs. Sarah Connolly gave an outstanding performance of it and I also relished the exquisite touch that Joseph Middleton imparted to the piano part.
Then Gurney’s three cabaret songs were moved up the programme order; we had expected to hear them immediately before Howells’ Gavotte. It was intelligent planning to include today songs by Gurney, Howells and Ivor Novello as all studied together as articled pupils of Sir Herbert Brewer at Gloucester Cathedral in the first few years of the twentieth century. Though Novello eventually followed a different musical path to his colleagues Gurney seems to have fancied trying to emulate him, at least once. These three songs, which Sarah Connolly described as “just a bit of fun”, were published under the pseudonym Frederick Saxty. All three are settings of lines by the American poet Louis How (1873-1947). To be honest, had I not known I would never have imagined them to be the work of Gurney. They are all short and all three are light and attractive. It was interesting to note, however, that even when writing in a lighter vein Gurney retained his sensitivity to words.
After a very short break Sarah Connolly and Joseph Middleton gave the first performance of A Welsh Night by Torsten Rasch. His music has been well-served by the Three Choirs Festival in recent years. Both of the last two festivals have included the première performances of works commissioned by the Three Choirs: at Gloucester in 2013 Roderick Williams gave the first performance of Four Songs by Rasch (review) while last year at Worcester his large scale choral/orchestral work, A Foreign Field, a co-commission with the Städtische Theater Chemnitz, received its première (review). I’m afraid that at the time I wasn’t too impressed with A Foreign Field, which I discussed in detail in my original review. Recently I’ve had the chance to hear it again in a recording of the German premiere on 5 March 2015. That was a better and more assured performance, I think – it was probably better conducted and I suspect the German choirs had rather longer to familiarise themselves with the difficult chorus parts. This time I was able to follow the performance in a vocal score and that plus the greater clarity of the radio recording allowed me to understand the piece better, especially the extended duet between the two soloists that constitutes Part II. However, I still can’t escape the feeling that the work is significantly over-scored. I continue to find the music difficult to appreciate though I readily admit that may be a failure of perception on my part. Against that background I approached the new work with a little nervousness but with, I hope, an open mind.
A Welsh Night consists of six songs that set lines by the Welsh poet, Alun Lewis (1915-1944). The first song, which takes lines from the poem, A Welsh Night, begins slowly and though the music is quite subdued it’s very intense. I may be mistaken but I thought I detected in the piano part a motif, several times repeated, that seemed to refer to part of the tune, ‘Bruder Martin’, that Mahler uses in the third movement of his First Symphony. Later the setting becomes more overtly passionate. The second song, to words from Songs for the Night, is equally intense. There’s a big piano part, tellingly played here by Joseph Middleton. However, though the instrumental part is very prominent I never felt the accompaniment was competing with or even working against the singer as, I’m afraid, I often felt was the case in A Foreign Field. Lewis’s last two lines are: ‘And always, ringing in the ear,/The tramp of feet, the scream of fear’. The music to which these lines are set is almost frightening in its emotional force. The slow fourth song sets lines from the poem Beloved Beware. This slow setting is deeply felt and Miss Connolly gave a moving performance. The opening line of the fifth song, an excerpt from Songs of Sleep, is ‘With joy my heart is singing’. To be honest, in the serious music to which Rasch sets the words there’s not much evidence of joy or optimism. However, as the song unfolds one realises that this tone may well be justified by the ambivalence of Lewis’s poetry. The final song is Monologue. At the start a child asks her mother for what one assumes is a goodnight kiss. However, by the end of the poem it’s clear that the child’s bed is, in fact, a grave. This is an infinitely touching setting and there’s genuine beauty in both the vocal line and the piano part. Even when the mother’s grief is apparent at the end the music retains its restrained beauty. I thought this was a marvellous song.
I enjoyed and admired A Welsh Night and should like to hear these songs again. Clearly they benefitted from the extremely fine artistry of Sarah Connolly and Joseph Middleton. However, I found that the settings of the texts made a greater appeal to me than had been the case with A Foreign Field. Perhaps one factor here was that the vocal line was not as angular as the soloists’ parts, in particular, often are in A Foreign Field; the musical line of these songs seems more appealingly contoured. However, I think the music benefitted also because it wasn’t as complex and so it spoke far more directly to the audience. I’m sure the composer, who was warmly received by the audience, felt that his new songs had been most auspiciously launched.
A lowering of the emotional temperature was called for after A Welsh Night. A delightful performance of Howells’ Gavotte was just the thing as was the lovely account of Gurney’s gently rapturous Thou didst delight my eyes. And Sarah Connolly reunited Herbert Brewer’s three contemporaries – and his most distinguished pupils – by following those two songs with Novello’s Glamorous Night. She gave a winning account of the song and then a beautifully wistful rendition of Roses of Picardy.
There was time for one encore: Novello’s 1914 song, Keep the Home Fires Burning. The first verse describes this as a “cheery song” and that’s how it came across here, as something very much intended to raise morale on the Home Front.
This was an excellent, often searching recital by two very fine and very perceptive artistes. I enjoyed it greatly.
The 2015 Hereford Three Choirs Festival has come to an end after a very successful week packed with an almost bewildering variety of musical and other cultural events. Next year the caravan moves to Gloucester and Adrian Partington is clearly going to mount a memorable festival. The key events, just announced, include Elgar’s The Kingdom; Berlioz’s Grande Messe des Morts, Mendelssohn’s Elijah with Sir Willard White in the title role; Dona Nobis Pacem (Vaughan Williams); and, to ring down the curtain, Mahler’s Eighth Symphony on the last night. The festival will take place from 23 to 30 July 2016 and more information will be found at www.3choirs.org