United Kingdom Schumann, Mahler, Berlioz, Debussy and Poulenc: Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano). Wigmore Hall, London. 9.9.2016. (JPr)
Schumann – Märzveilchen Op.40 No.1; Muttertraum Op.40 No.2; Der Soldat Op.40 No.3; Der Spielmann Op.40 No.4
Mahler – Rückert Lieder
Berlioz – Les nuits d’été
Debussy – Chansons de Bilitis
Poulenc – Banalités
There is a very interesting recent review on this site from Paul Serotsky in New Zealand ‘It is Lieder, Jim, But Not As We Know It’ in which he reflects on how sometimes he likes listening to Lieder more on CD rather than going to a recital because – and I hope I am not simplifying his argument too much – often the songs are just sung but not performed. Even with some Mahler songs I put on once someone came up to me afterwards to suggest the singer had acted the songs too much and had not stood still enough nor sung them with only minimal vocal expression and eschewing any facial or physical gestures. There should be no second guessing what type of Lieder recital I prefer and it is the one where each song is treated as a vignette and the story of which is to be communicated to the audience. Sarah Connolly excels in strong female and ‘male’ (trouser) roles in opera and is never just going to stand and deliver a song even during a relatively low-key programme of introspection such as this, which verged on self-absorption.
Paul Serotsky in his review also considers the role of the accompanist and seems to prefer someone who doesn’t just accompany but has their own voice to make each song – in a Wagnerian sense – a mini music drama. Again this would be my preference and is not to everybody’s taste. Here in the opening concert of the 2016/17 season Sarah Connolly’s attentive, sensitive pianist was the world renowned Malcolm Martineau who was mostly content to just play the notes and just let her voice do the rest. It was deep into the recital with the pair embarking on Debussy’s Chansons de Bilitis – with their anticipations of Pelléas et Mélisande – before the more impressionistic music drew out some greater virtuosity from Martineau, especially when it came to the green frogs in ‘La flûte de Pan’ (The flute of Pan).
An ethereal sense of (hetero- and possibly homosexual) love and loss permeated many of Sarah Connolly’s songs and her voice is remarkably assured and able to express any nuance in a text. Both her legato singing and pianissimo singing were excellent and she judged the acoustics of the Wigmore Hall to perfection so every word could be heard even at the very back where I was. Though I am not fluent in either language I thought her French better than her German which lacked attention to consonants. I have heard Connolly sing several times before and although her voice was more than just fine it seemed – on this occasion – to be more soprano than mezzo When she needed to employ a chest voice there wasn’t the darker more resonant sound which some of the songs clearly required.
The recital began with four of Robert Schumann’s Fünf Lieder (Op.40) causing someone near me to ponder what was wrong with the fifth one. The blossoming ‘Märzveilchen’ (March violets) provided the sweetness before the rather more bitter ‘Muttertraum’ (A mother’s dream), in which a mother is tormented by ravens; ‘Der Soldat’ (The soldier) with its concluding execution; and the equally nightmarish ‘Der Spielmann’ (The fiddler). Connolly revealed the emotional turmoil of the three bleaker songs which are ahead of their time and pre-empt Mahler.
To underline this Mahler’s Rückert Lieder followed. In ‘Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder!’ (Do not look into my songs!) neither Connolly nor Martineau captured its mercurial nature with neither buzzing as they should – if you do not know the song, bees are building their honeycombs! Even with the pianist’s (too?) understated support the remaining four of these songs about love, beauty and the transcendental transience of everything still came close to perfection. ‘Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft’ indeed had a wonderful ‘gentle fragrance’ and – the darkest of the songs – ‘Um Mitternacht’ (At Midnight) was suitably impassioned but it was in the key phrases such as ‘nicht konnt’ ich sie entscheiden’ (I could not gain victory) and ‘Herr über Tod und Leben’ (Lord over death and life) where Connolly’s voice didn’t quite have the necessary depth and richness. Here – as elsewhere in this recital – there was still a dramatic conviction in her interpretation which only someone so vastly experienced in opera can achieve. ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’ – Mahler’s deceptively simple, highly personal love song for his wife, Alma – was superbly nuanced. ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ (I am lost to the world), is beautiful and deeply affecting when sung properly – as it was here. The last lines of this saddest of all sad songs (English: ‘I live alone in my heaven in my loving, in my song’) were as contemplative and had as deep a reverence that only the greatest performances can give them.
In Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été there are two lighter songs juxtaposing (what else?) four others that are full of longing, misery, and death. Again these were a serious and assertive interpretation by the singer and a more austere one from the pianist. I wonder if Connolly might have been a bit more playful with the lighter songs, the amorous and carefree ‘Villanelle’ and concluding ‘L’île inconnue’ (The unknown isle) to highlight the difference between these and the other three laments. Connolly brought out the tragic dimensions of ‘Le spectre de la rose’ (The spectre of the rose) but the ‘forme angélique’ (angelic form) failed to have any spectral effect in ‘Au cimetière’ (At the cemetery). In between ‘Absence’ was disconcerting for the sense of separation from a loved one it expresses, yet despite this I am not certain whether Sarah Connolly fully embraced the passionate romanticism of this cycle as others might.
Debussy’s Chansons de Bilitis (‘La flûte de Pan’, ‘La chevelure’ and ‘Le tombeau des Naïades’) were inspired by the ‘Bucolics in Pamphylia’ cycle of Pierre Louÿs’ collection of poems. Connolly’s interpretations were compelling and she captured the mood of the songs inimitably, her voice once again overriding Martineau’s still rather wistful – if rather more evocative than usual – playing. She was especially convincing in embodying the scarcely veiled eroticism of ‘La chevelure’ (The tresses of hair) and expressing the bleakness and dread of ‘Le tombeau des Naïades’ (The tomb of the Naiads).
Banalités is Poulenc’s setting of a ragbag selection of poems by Guillaume Apollinaire (real name Wilhelm Albert Włodzimierz Apolinary Kostrowicki). This cycle opens with ‘Chanson d’Orkenise’ – not Orkney but a village in France – which was quite spirited and yet another about love and heartbreak which fitted the primary theme of this recital. The second, ‘Hôtel’, was more reflective and languorous being about someone who just wants to stay in their room and smoke. ‘Fagnes de Wallonie’ (Walloon moss-hags) is about a doleful meander through a fir plantation. ‘Voyage à Paris’ is trite but charming and celebrates ‘charming Paris’. Finally, ‘Sanglots’ (Sobs) is quieter and returned to a more introspective mood (another feature of this recital) but develops dramatically and Connolly brought it to a sublime conclusion as it mused ‘Let us leave all to the dead and conceal our sobs’.
The rather downbeat nature of this recital did not have those in the Wigmore Hall on their feet at the end but the applause was deservedly more than respectful and the audience was treated to two delightful encores; Clara Schumann’s different setting of ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’ and a rarity from Alma Mahler ‘Bei dir ist es traut’ (I am at ease with you) another gentle romantic idyll with the lovers once again retreating into their own timeless, hidden world.