Sarah Connolly and Joseph Middleton journey through the night at Cadogan Hall

We started in daylight though, with Charles Villiers Stanford’s ‘A soft
day’. Middleton conveyed the folky wistfulness of the gentle
first-inversion harmonies though Connolly took time to settle, and she
seemed a little nervous in the opening phrases. This was her Proms debut
recital and perhaps she had still to get the ‘feel’ of the acoustic and
balance in a capacity Cadogan Hall. But, there was characteristic openness
and warmth in the lower range – the falling minor sixth in the first phrase
which conveys the poet’s thankfulness was fully of sincerity – and lustre
as her voice rose, as well as attentiveness to the text: the free
elongation of the ‘rain’ in the first statement of the refrain which closes
both stanzas created lovely suspense before the gentle patter, ‘drip’,
‘drip’, fell lightly. The anonymous poet’s direct appeal to ‘Look how the
snowy mountains/Heaven’s sun doth gently waste!’, in Parry’s ‘Weep
you no more, sad fountains’, was similarly vibrant, and the
twos-against-threes in Middleton’s accompaniment lilted lazily and

The piano introduction to Vaughan Williams’ ‘Love-Sight’ was similarly
tender while the subsequent oscillations generated urgency and movement,
and Middleton effected a persuasive change of mood at the volta of Dante
Gabriel Rossetti’s sonnet. Again, Connolly seemed somewhat uncomfortable in
her middle range, and the intonation was at times unfocused, but she did
use the rising phrases to create dramatic intensity. The anxious questions
posed by Robert Bridges in the final stanza of Ivor Gurney’s ‘Thou didst
delight my eyes’ were, similarly, effectively heightened. Connolly seemed
to get fully into her stride with Sir Arthur Somervell’s ‘Into my heart an
air that kills’, a setting from Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, the opening declamatory line of which was beautifully soft and
well-centred. The memories triggered by the pastoral vista brought warmth,
but also a poignancy which was deepened by Middleton’s sensitive expression
in the piano postlude.

Frank Bridge’s ‘Come to me in my dreams’ was an early highlight in the
recital, the vocal lines extending languidly accompanied by freely
unfolding, bluesy piano harmonies. Matthew Arnold’s ardent appeal to his
beloved to salve his uncertainties with a kiss upon his sleeping brow and
say, ‘My love! why suff’rest thou?’, drooped down a seventh, heavy with
rich emotion, but if here the hopeless longings of the day were becalmed,
in the composer’s ‘Journey’s End’ Connolly distinguished effectively
between the anxious questions and fears of the young boy and the troubling,
regretted knowledge of his father who knows all too well what is to be
found when the journey of life’s ‘done’. Herbert Howell’s ‘Goddess of
Night’ was more consoling, the slowly rolling, dark-hued piano chords
suggesting a peace that ran deep, and Gustav Holst’s ‘Journey’s End’
offered a less immediately anxious interpretation of Humbert Wolfe’s poem,
as Connolly slipped with smooth lyricism through the scalic lines, with
restrained vibrato but deep expression.

In the five songs of Britten’s Charm of Lullabies the mezzo
soprano showed a real feeling for the composer’s approach to text-setting,
and his wry, sometimes caustic, humour. In ‘A Cradle Song’ Connolly moved
evenly across registers above Middleton’s asymmetrical ‘rocking’, the bass
ostinato of which straddled some bitter, dry intervals as the right hand
circled restlessly before trickling upwards and into silence. The quirky
skips and swing of ‘The Highland Balou’ were similarly anchored to
insistent piano bass notes, and Connolly relished the idiosyncrasies of
Robert Burns’ dialect, which she highlighted with flashes of vocal
brightness. ‘Sephestia’s Lullaby’ was impressively off score, and Connolly
confidently and clearly enunciated the rapid ‘nursery lines’ – ‘Mother’s
wag, pretty boy/ Father’s sorrow, father’s joy’ – which separate three
statements of the more reflective refrain, ‘Weep not, my wanton, smile upon
my knee.’ The chromatic keenness of the latter was secure and pointed. The
irony of Thomas Randolph’s ‘A Charm’, which Britten evokes in the piano’s
bubbling, stabbing gestures and the singer’s extravagant commands, ‘Quiet!
Sleep!’, which threaten – one imagines, futilely – the infant with hellish
Furies that shall ‘lash thee to eternity’ if he does not succumb to sleep.
Fortunately, the final unaccompanied stanza of ‘The Nurse’s Song’ was more
peace-inducingly restful, and this song allowed us to enjoy the rich
colours of Connolly’s mezzo as it crooned its increasingly more impassioned
lullaby against the, at times, quasi exotic gestures and dissonances in the
piano accompaniment.

Cradle of Lullabies
was preceded by two songs which were originally destined for inclusion in
the cycle, but which Britten later chose to exclude. He scored them through
with a single pencil line suggesting omission but not complete rejection –
as Connolly discovered when she examined the manuscript in the
Britten-Pears Library. Now prepared for publication Colin Matthews, the
songs received their premiere here at Cadogan Hall.

The piano’s easeful accompaniment of swinging arpeggios in ‘A Sweet
Lullaby’, which sets selected verses of a poem printed by Nicholas Breton
in an anthology of 1597, is deceptively soothing, though there are some
intervallic piquancies, for the sentiments of the raw, expressive text –
expressively shaped by Connolly, and conveying the poet-speaker’s pained
concern and care for the child, as the melodic sank low – are melancholy:
‘Come, little babe, come, silly soul,/ Thy father’s shame, thy mother’s
grief.’ The text of ‘Somnus, the humble god’, by the seventeenth-century
poet, John Denham, employs some delightful triple rhymes and Britten
captures the energy that this scheme creates in the wide distances between
the forward-rolling low piano left hand and the high flourishes in the
right, and in the voice’s fervent, insistent appeals which climax with the
realisation that ‘Sleep, that is thy best repast,/ Yet of death it bears
the taste,/ And both are the same thing at last.’ The piano’s final tierce de Picardie went some way to releasing the tension of the
preceding troubled images.

And so, we arrived at the final pair of premieres. Lisa Illean’s
‘Sleeplessness … Sails’ is one of this year’s BBC commissions from women
composers. Illean sets an untitled poem by Osip Mandelstam, in which the
narrator, unable to sleep, reads an episode of the Iliad and finds
his ‘suspended state of insomnia is lithely mingled with the image of a
fleet of ships suspended mid-voyage, resembling a crane in flight. The
Australian composer certainly creates a dream mood, in which fantasy is
evoked by expansive registral contrasts in the piano, and the improvisatory
quality of the accompaniments trickling lines, as well as by the slow
presentation of the text by the voice. There is a strong sense of
anticipatory stasis and if at times the vocal line seemed to drift and lack
direction, that was probably the point, and the extended phrases were
certainly precisely crafted by Connolly. The descent of the vocal line in
the final stanza resonated with feeling – ‘And the sea, and Homer – all is
moved by love.’, as the sea trembled and churned with increasing
tempestuousness and vigour.

Connolly and Middleton bid us ‘Farewell’ courtesy of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s
2016 setting of Stevie Smith’s poignantly understated ‘Farewell dear
friends’, the direct simplicity of which was emphasised by Connolly’s
clear-voiced high vocal line and the sparseness of the piano accompaniment.
Turnage’s instinctive responsiveness to the rhythms of the language was, as
always, noteworthy, in the particular shaping of words and phrases, but
also in the overall pacing of the song. The final verse was delivered with
powerful directness and honesty by Connolly: ‘Sing ding dong farewell/ As a
sweet bell.’

Claire Seymour

Dame Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano), Joseph Middleton (piano)

Stanford – ‘A Soft Day’ from A Sheaf of Songs from Leinster
Op.140, Parry – ‘Weep you no more, sad fountains’ fromEnglish Lyrics Set 4, Vaughan Williams – ‘Love-Sight’ from The House of Life, Gurney – ‘Thou didst delight my eyes’,
Somervell – ‘Into my heart an air that kills’ from A Shropshire Lad, Bridge – ‘Come to me in my dreams’, ‘Journey’s
End’, Howells – ‘Goddess of Night’, Britten – ‘A Sweet Lullaby’ (world
premiere), ‘Somnus’ (world premiere), Holst – ‘Journey’s End’, Britten – A Charm of Lullabies, Lisa Illean – ‘Sleeplessness … Sails’ (BBC
commission: world premiere), Mark-Anthony Turnage – ‘Farewell (world

Proms Chamber Music 4 at Cadogan Hall; Monday 6th August 2018.

image_description=Dame Sarah Connolly (mezzo soprano) and Joseph Middleton (piano): Proms Chamber Music 4, at Cadogan Hall
product_title=Dame Sarah Connolly (mezzo soprano) and Joseph Middleton (piano): Proms Chamber Music 4, at Cadogan Hall
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Sarah Connolly

Photo credit: Jan Capinski