United Kingdom Schumann, Ravel, Ireland, Gurney, Britten: Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano) and Joseph Middleton (pianist), Howard Assembly Rooms, Leeds, 26.11.2016. (CF)
Schumann – Vier Lieder Op.40
Ravel – Shéhérazade
Ireland – ‘Earth’s Call’, ‘Her Song’, ‘If There Were Dreams To Sell’
Gurney – ‘Sleep’, ‘By a Bierside’, ‘Most Holy Night’, ‘The Fields Are Full’
Britten – A Charm of Lullabies Op.41
This intelligent programme of lieder spanning German Romanticism to a trio of British composers from the 20th century was also the launch for the Leeds Lieder 2017 Festival. This may explain the buzz that was evident in the bar and stalls before the performance began, though this could equally have been in anticipation of the performers. Joseph Middleton, the festival’s Director, was on accompanist duties for the renowned mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly, and attendees may have had their palette whetted by their appearance on BBC Radio 3’s In Tune the day before (still available on BBC iPlayer). If so, that they would have heard is a delightfully coherent partnership, one where pianist and singer work in total unison whether sensitivity or drama is called for.
Connolly’s remarkable operatic career, which traverses the repertoire from Purcell’s Dido to Wagner’s Fricka, has no doubt honed her ability to inhabit the character roles of German Romantic lieder, and this was heard to immediate effect in the opening Schumann. The four songs of Op.40 do not lack for drama, from the darkness of ‘Muttertraum’ (Mother’s Dream), where uncanny melodies seem to portend the dissonance of death, to ‘Der Soldat’, a bleak tale recounting the ordeal of a soldier having to shoot his best friend. The piano writing enriches the drama, as fortissimos imitate gunshots: eight miss but the ninth hits home. Here body language – a soldierly stance by the singer – added extra resonances to the words beneath the music. Connolly’s expressive face, crystal clear diction and dynamic range brought these four mini-dramas to life, whilst Middleton provided accompaniment that was often thrilling, especially during those gunshots.
From German Romanticism the programme moved to 20th-century French Modernism, and Ravel’s Shéhérazade, settings of three poems by Tristian Klingsor. The demands here for both singer and pianist are extraordinary and Middleton proved himself equal to the task of these imposing piano transcriptions. The harmonies are exquisitely opulent and mysterious, a world away from Schumann, but I was immediately drawn into this new soundscape by his playing. Again, surely Connolly’s operatic experience allows her to make the vocal switch to the French so smoothly, and her pronunciation once again impressed with its accuracy and clarity. She seemed to relish the opulence which matched the sparkle and splendour of the trim on her long velvet jacket. It begins with Asie, filled with desire to experience all the wonders of the Orient from minarets and viziers to mandarins. Connolly often affected a faraway look in her eye that was suggestive of the yearning within the song – ‘Je voudrais m’attarder au palais enchanté’ (I want to linger in an enchanted palace). Sonically, it is reminiscent of Debussy’s Asian-inflected works and was perfectly articulated, especially its slightly manic ending, where the desire for new experiences includes witnessing poverty and violent death. ‘La Flute Enchantée‘ and ‘L’Indifférent’ were just as mesmerising, the latter’s wondrous opening and closing chords possessing a Mahlerian sense of tapping into the infinite. Perhaps the reason these songs are more often performed is because of the complexities involved for the individual roles, so difficult to unify into a coherent whole. Middleton is a formidable Ravelian and it would be interesting to hear him perform the solo repertoire, such as Le Tombeau de Couperin.
Following the interval, the music moved to the British Isles and its more recent exponents of song. John Ireland’s ‘Earth Song’ sounds radically new but a French influence can still be heard here. The trills, runs and palette of Ravel are present, but everything is, well, a little spikier. Ivor Gurney’s songs are more deceptively simple calling on different technique and sensitivities from the performers. The programme concluded with the imperious Benjamin Britten’s collection A Charm of Lullabies. These are very grown-up lullabies indeed and include poems by William Blake (‘A Cradle Song’) and Robert Burns (‘A Highland Balou’) amongst the five settings. The piano part for the Blake song could be one of Shostakovich’s Op.87 preludes – showing just how much these two composers shared harmonically. Both performers gave free rein to the fun of these settings. Connolly dispatched the Scottish dialect in the Burns with aplomb and clearly relished the menace of the “Quiet, sleep! Quiet!” refrain in Thomas Randolph’s poem, ‘A Charm’, drawing laughter from the audience. Once again, Middleton’s digits were up to the demands of Britten’s often tricky piano writing.
This was an evening filled with lovely moments: a piano chord sustained to transition from the second song into the third in the Schumann, a touch which showed off both the Steinway’s reach and the warm acoustic of the Howard Assembly rooms; a playful laugh between singer and pianist at the note which brought a jolly Britten song to a peremptory close; Sarah Connolly’s easy manner when talking to the audience before the encore, a setting of Metaphysical poet Edmund Waller’s ‘Go, Lovely Rose!’ by Roger Quilter, a charming way to round off a thoroughly charming evening, and one that heralds well for the festival to come in 2017.