Sarah Connolly Excels in Viennese and French Repertoire

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Edinburgh International Festival 2015 (11) – Schoenberg, Zemlinsky, Eisler, Debussy, Poulenc, Strauss & Korngold: Sarah Connolly (mezzo), Malcolm Martineau (piano), Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 17.08.2015 (SRT)

The heady world of fin-de-siècle Vienna is not one with which we intend to associate Sarah Connolly; but in fact her expressive, sonorous mezzo is pretty ideally suited to it.  Schoenberg’s early Lieder Op. 2 sit in the perfect range for her voice, and their sultry world of half-suggestions really played to the strengths of Connolly’s lower range, while Malcolm Martineau seemed to revel in Schoenberg’s eternally experimental keyboard harmonies.  Zemlinsky’s Six Songs Op. 13 allowed more of a narrative element to creep in, revealing some of the knowledge gained from Connolly’s vast experience in the theatre, while the selection from Korngold gave her permission to sing with a seeming nod-and-a-smile.  After all, Korngold was just about to leave for Hollywood when he wrote these.

The French repertoire suited her all the more, with Poulenc’s Banalités giving her room for extremes of expression, from the joy of anticipating Paris to the heady languor of Hôtel.  She seemed drained after the emotional whirlwind of Sanglots, a token of how much she invested in her performance.  Debussy’s famous Chansons de Bilitis fitted her best of all, however.  Here she was brilliantly expressive; not just of the composer’s suggestive, half-lit melodies, all sensual suggestion and evocations of something scarcely known, but also of Louÿs’ pregnant French prose, with which she seemed not just comfortable but fluent.  Incidentally, in her encore, Dominic Muldowney’s, In Paris with you, every word was crystal clear.

The biggest revelation for me, however, was the selection from Hanns Eisler’s Hollywood Songbook.  These beautiful miniatures, with words by Bertolt Brecht, speak of the (mostly pretty dreadful) conditions endured by cultural émigrés as they fled Nazi Europe to find work in Hollywood.  I loved the image of Bach and Dante touting for business beneath the pepper trees, or the poet selling lies in the marketplace.  Most salutary of all, especially for anyone putting on a show at the Edinburgh Fringe, the insight that “Paradise and Hell are the same city.  For the unsuccessful, Paradise itself is Hell.”  Plus ça change…

The concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and is available to listen again here.


The 2015 Edinburgh International Festival runs until Monday 31st August at venues across the city.  For full details go to


Simon Thompson


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