Come to me in my dreams: 120 years of song from the Royal College of Music
Dame Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano), Joseph Middleton (piano)
rec. 2017/18, Potton Hall, Dunwich, UK
English sung texts included (except that for Turnage, Farewell)
CHANDOS CHAN10944 [77:18]
Two song cycles and eighteen other songs on this CD celebrate 120 years of song from London’s Royal College of Music, the seventeen composers featured having studied there, except Parry and Stanford who taught there. It also includes premiere recordings of three songs, Britten’s A Sweet Lullaby and Somnus and Turnage’s Farewell.
Muriel Herbert’s The Lost Nightingale begins with the singer devoid of music, even a piano, because the nightingale has gone. The piano enters when the bird’s melody is recalled and the voice’s final thought is of the bird’s grace as the piano is now left alone to give a warm impression of that comfort. Sarah Connolly’s opening is sensitively elegiac for her loss, her close grateful for having experienced the bird. She vividly illustrates the power of the nightingale’s throat and she and Joseph Middleton’s accompaniment shape the song so that its climactic allusion to the singing of the cherubim in heaven strikes home. I compared the 2014 recording by Caroline MacPhie, also with Middleton (Stone Records ST 8045). Soprano MacPhie has a smaller but brighter tone and thereby less elegiac manner than Connolly. MacPhie’s sweet purity creates a more painful recollection of loss, while Connolly more roundedly conveys affection as well as pain. Middleton seems to have a bigger tone in accompanying MacPhie, a more flourishing manner to illustrate the bird. With Connolly, while always clear, he seems to me more reserved.
John Ireland’s song Earth’s Call finds Connolly’s entrance becalming the striking turbulence of Middleton’s opening, quickly and neatly becoming beguiling as she sings to her loved one and then eager to point out crow chasing cuckoo until all is suddenly still and she sings ad lib ‘They’re gone’. She does this in a deep, dry tone with a hint of parlando and the effect is one of desolation. She moves on resolvedly to ‘Just come a little farther’ (1:38), with a tenderly coaxing warmth responding to the marking ‘with breadth’ before her passionate proposal of which, however, for me the most telling moment is the softening at ‘Let us both listen’ (2:43). A piano interlude then, Richard Stokes’ expert notes tell us, ‘expresses the rapture of sexual fulfilment as much as delight in the sylvan scene.’ That does explain the song’s coda, which returns to the cuckoo catalyst, pictured by Connolly with affectionate gratitude. I compared the mezzo Kitty Whately, also accompanied by Middleton, recorded in 2014 (Champs Hill Records CHCRD094). Timing at 5:24 to the Connolly recording’s 4:57, there’s slightly less energy of projection. Middleton’s opening here and similarly his piano interlude doesn’t quite have the impact of the Chandos CD, but Whately opens with eager freshness. ‘They’re gone’ graphically comes out of a touch more silence to the preceding rest with deadpan acceptance of the end of one pleasurable experience, then a serious search for another. ‘Just come a little farther’ would benefit from more breadth but Whately’s proposal has an ardent appeal and her coda is smiling and comely.
Ireland also features as arranger of the traditional melody, The Three Ravens, who see a dead knight as breakfast, not counting on the intervention of his hounds, hawks and a deer who buries him even at the cost of her own life. Marked In free time (Moderato), Connolly makes subtle variations in a quite brisk delivery, as appropriate to folksong narrative, yet always with the flowing ‘With a down’ refrain a smidgen more reflective and emotive. Middleton’s piano accompaniment varies from starkness at key moments like the first sight of the dead knight or eager patrolling of the hawks, to a primevally smooth innocence, both characteristics finely inflected. I compared the 2012 recording by the soprano April Fredrick with pianist Mark Bebbington (Somm SOMMCD 0137). Only a whisker faster, 3:42 rather than 3:47, it’s beautifully sung and played but Connolly articulates the words more and thereby gives more immediacy to the narrative while Middleton similarly makes more of those rare, louder key moments.
Thomas Frederick Dunhill’s The Cloths of Heaven is for me the simplest and most hospitable song on this CD. It begins with a theme marked legato semplice which from Middleton is an easy-going procession, first for the piano, then the voice, yet which also has something of the quality of a catechism. What treasures would we like to give (the varying colours of the heavens), but what can we, even if poor, give which is our own treasure (our dreams). Connolly’s is a humble statement of poverty but her gift of dreams, with an enthralling softness, is suddenly something special, the visionary element. The song’s climax, with crescendo and diminuendo on ‘Softly’ is like a prayer. I compared the 1990 recording by mezzo Sarah Walker with Roger Vignoles (CRD 3473). Timing at 2:17 to Connolly/Middleton’s 2:08, this takes more note of the former element of the marking Moderato, ma con moto. Connolly/Middleton’s touch of greater progression makes the voice particularly more present and human with more feeling of a wish to give. Walker/Vignoles are more reserved and dignified, resolved in worship, the dreams a touching gift of a cherished possession but not, like Connolly, adumbrating their magic.
Herbert Howells’ Goddess of Night (tr. 5) has a piano introduction which Middleton makes unearthly yet quite comforting. The opening vocal line processes chant-like with minimal melodic movement to the figure of the goddess, but then we glimpse the substance behind the figure and the focus switches to the figure watching you. Stokes terms it an ‘exquisite nocturne’, yes indeed, but a bit spine-tingling too. What’s also exquisite is Connolly’s control. I compared the 2005 recording by baritone Roderick Williams with pianist Susie Allan (Somm SOMMCD 057). The marking is Poco lento, assai tranquillo and, at 2:51 to Connolly/Middleton’s 2:14, Williams/Allan give us more sense of the statuesque, a touch at the cost of tranquillity. Yet Williams’ opening viewing also conveys a smiling appreciation which grows to homage in his second statement, while his closing statement has an extraordinary innocence, a magic prepared by an even finer subito piano than Connolly’s at the switch of focus on ‘watching us’ (at 1:20 by Connolly).
Frank Bridge’s Journey’s End is, on the surface, a transparent series of questions and answers by a child wondering about a new sleeping place and his mother knowing that the reality for her son is different (I don’t think that’s a total spoiler). Connolly makes movingly clear both the intense earnestness of the boy’s workaday questions and the mother’s wise, increasingly weary, enigmatic answers. I like the freshness Middleton’s introduction and accompaniment brings, with the light nevertheless fluorescent, so there’s an element of starkness that cuts against the comfortable backcloth making, both the boy’s and mother’s perspectives present. The only other currently available recording I could find is one from 1963 by Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten (Decca 4782345). Timing at 3:13 against Connolly/Middleton’s 3:42, they favour the earlier element of the marking Andante moderato. This makes Britten’s accompaniment smoother with even the unresolved closing chord more tempered than Middleton’s. The latter leaves us with the puzzlement of the child. Pears makes less attempt than Connolly to vary the timbre of offspring and parent, but he is more magical in his more vivid sotto voce after the final question ‘Who calls me after sleeping?’ (tr. 6, 2:13 in Connolly), though Connolly does tail away beautifully at the very end. Pears gets across early in the song that ‘Son’ is a refrain of anguish; Connolly makes its final use more graphic.
Where she lies asleep is a lullaby and its piano introduction, accompaniment and Middleton’s playing gently instil the rocking with the imperturbability of an easy heartbeat. Unlike anything in Britten’s A Charm of Lullabies later on this CD, this gem of a song is an act of homage by the mother to the child, in Connolly’s expressiveness full of gratitude and wonder yet also fear lest any sensation of hers transmit and disturb the light repose. Listen out for the adoringly benign bluesy moments in Middleton’s piano too. In their 2014 recording, mezzo Kathryn Rudge and James Baillieu (Champs-Hill Records CHRCD092), timing at 3:37 against Connolly/Middleton’s 3:25, are arguably closer to the marking Andante ben moderato, but I prefer the easier flow set by Middleton, though Baillieu achieves a lovely tranquillity of tone. Rudge’s approach has a winsome simplicity which also brings out the meditative quality of the setting, but I find it a little too understated, which Connolly’s more emotive roundedness avoids.
Come to me in my dreams is the most time-bound of the songs on this CD, unashamedly late romantic. Connolly’s poise in finely judging the tenuto on ‘my’ in the title and opening line fixes the intrinsic personal quality of the song and its performance. Middleton enjoys the effusively rhapsodic piano part, Connolly the warmth of the melody but also the drama as the fantasy is faced only for the address to become more tender and personal and you feel the composer’s identification with the poet Arnold, the song having been written shortly after Bridge’s engagement to his future wife had been forbidden. I compared the recording published in 2005 by the soprano Yvonne Kenny with Caroline Almonte (ABC Classics 476 1581). Their timing at 3:19 against Connolly/Middleton’s 3:29, slightly weakens the latter element of the marking Andante moderato, resulting in a lilting but over gushing piano and rather melodramatic voice, which weakens the effect of the late switch to realism that the more moderate Connolly/Middleton achieve.
Benjamin Britten is represented by his song cycle A Charm of Lullabies. Its opening A Cradle Song is a sensitive setting of Blake in that the lullaby seems little more than a backdrop to the mother’s fears for the monster her child may become in the full light of day, so you can think of it as a prequel to the governess in Turn of the screw. The climax of the song is its only loud passage, ‘Then the dreadful lightnings break’. Its fascination, however, lies in the contrast between the flowing lines of lullaby, particularly in the more regularly rhythmic undulating piano contours, and the disturbing effect of the bluesy dissonances created by the convergence of voice and piano. These also evoke the semi-comatose state of the babe the singer wishes to retain. Connolly and Middleton convey this well, with Connolly revealing the mother’s blend of affection and anxiety. I compared Ann Murray and Malcolm Martineau in a recording published in 2005 (Avie AV 2077). Timing at 2:26 to Connolly/Middleton’s 2:16, they emphasise the tranquillo element of Britten’s marking Allegretto tranquillo which keeps the intended lullaby always in focus and the clouding of the potential idyll more poignant. Murray/Martineau are more effective in their very soft opening. Connolly/Middleton craft a more pervasive angst.
That first song juggles make-believe and reality, the second, The Highland Balou, is a faith that make-believe can become reality. The song itself was collected by Burns. Britten gives it a more ornamented and smoother, less raw repetitive line and similarly provides some breezy variation in the accompaniment while maintaining the short-long Scotch snap rhythmic kick. Britten’s marking Andante maestoso seems a little tongue-in-cheek, similarly the piano’s marcato, but Middleton is right to give it a swing and swagger while Connolly addresses the vocal marking ritmico with a relish that contains a love of mischief and anarchy inherent in the text. Enjoyment would be aided by an English translation of the text. I’ll summarize. It’s Andante maestoso because the infant is the bastard son of the clan chief and it’s the mother’s wish that he steal a horse, cross the border and steal a cow in Carlisle and come back with enhanced prospects. Martineau’s accompaniment is more playful, but as he’s Scottish perhaps that’s more authentic. Murray also seems to have the glint in the eye of an eager mother engrossed in her own imagination of good prospects, articulating with more of the common touch than Connolly.
Throughout this cycle, the repetitions in the accompaniment display various styles of rocking the baby. The third song, Sephestia’s Lullaby, has two. First, a slow, mournful one and Stokes in the CD booklet suggests the marking piangendo illustrates the child’s tears. Maybe, but the accent on the first note of the two-note rocking motif and the pervasive chromaticism to me suggest the mother’s anger, even if this conflicts with the vocal marking dolce. Connolly doesn’t sound sweet, but caringly concerned as she looks to the child’s future and sees tragedy. A section twice the speed brings a bouncier rocking in a light staccato. The voice is marked leggiero and Connolly is that, yet it becomes clear that this is an angry playfulness because the father has abandoned the boy. It’s not the child’s grief but the mother’s being paraded, her concern that this child has no good prospects, a refrain heard thrice with Connolly providing every time a lovely glissando of pitying regret. Martineau’s accents in the rocking motive, are firm but gentler, Murray’s address to the child is softer and thereby more tender where Connolly is more declamatory. Murray makes the fast section a more conversational, confiding explanation. Martineau makes more of the sforzando that breaks this flashback, returning us to the present. Murray’s climax remains intimate and so seems more philosophical – things get worse for everyone as they age.
While Connolly came to that lullaby with some anger, it is venom she brings to the fourth one, A Charm, which turns out to be the curse type, as at the end of both stanzas a weird rising scale from the piano bass is matched by a falling one from the voice. A lurid catalogue of punishments from classical literature nasties is threatened, but how can the child sleep with mum yelling ‘Quiet’? Connolly/Middleton give us chilling dynamic contrasts which Murray/Martineau uncharacteristically temper. Murray maintains the intimacy of the previous songs and, with much of the material neutral in dynamic, this makes for a creepy atmosphere. Murray/Martineau rather throw off the curse to ironic effect.
The fifth and final lullaby, The Nurse’s Song (tr. 11), is a journey from darkness to potential light. The opening refrain, because set for unaccompanied voice, seems to be in D minor, continuing the grim mood of the previous song. But the marking is Andante piacevole, so it’s intended to sound agreeable! The other marking, senza misura, in free time, allows Connolly’s spaciousness to create a feeling of affection balanced by professional concern. The entrance of the piano rocking and this song’s key of B flat major has the soothing effect you’d wish, whether babe or nurse, but an equally soothing variant of the refrain in hushed low register (0:49) finds the piano almost immediately adding the original refrain in the high register. This addition is marked dolce but Middleton, instead, brings to it an eloquent compassion: I like this because it recalls the concern of the original refrain. The song climaxes with that refrain sung loudly and passionately as the nurse’s prayer for the gods’ protection and it is faith in this that makes the opening refrain return more comfortingly with its soothing variant unaccompanied in Connolly’s rich but softening low register to close as a benediction. Murray/Martineau, timing at 3:48 to Connolly/Middleton’s 4:06, give the song more lilt from the outset which does make it more agreeable and optimistic. Martineau’s entrance is then less distinctive as a contrast, but he’s gentle and his high register lullaby recalls the voice’s pleasant opening. Murray’s confidence that all’s well in her address to the baby is more alluring than that of Connolly who here carries the solicitude of much of the cycle to put an end to it through pious hope.
But not quite the end, for this CD contains the first recordings of two songs Britten sketched for the cycle but for which he never produced a fair copy. They are, nevertheless, sufficiently complete for Colin Matthews, a composer who assisted Britten, to dot their ‘i’s and cross their ‘t’s and somewhat more, and we have Connolly to thank for instigating this. A Sweet Lullaby begins with a beguilingly smooth rocking figure from Middleton, but this is a troubled lullaby, the child who is a mother’s grief and father’s shame. After this confession from the mother the refrain ‘Sing lullaby’ is louder, to bring us back to the song’s purpose before Connolly raptly softens to focus on the child and the only innocence to be found. As the voice becomes more fraught, the piano’s rocking becomes more vigorous. As in Sephestia’s Lullaby, the father has deserted, but this mother attests that his nobility should be a matter of pride for the babe, even while Connolly racks herself with guilt, climaxing in a searing animato recollection of the father’s ‘glancing looks’ on high F sharp. Thereafter the lullaby is soft but moves to poco f. and accents on ‘God bless my babe’, Connolly bringing to this in context an unexpected moment of fervour, after which the song dies away with the comforting recollection of the father’s ‘quality’. But Middleton’s three closing piano chords take us back to the child and a bleak future.
Britten’s other composition draft, Somnus, the humble god, is a song of paradoxes, of the humble god who doesn’t fear princes as people but their crowns and what they represent, where the setting switches from the mellifluous to the stern. Britten’s manuscript, like his source book, F. E. Budd’s A book of lullabies 1300-1900, reads ‘fly from the circle of a crown’ though Connolly sings the less universal ‘his circle’, as in the CD booklet. The climactic paradox is that between sleep being Nature’s comforting aid and a sting in bearing the taste of death. Connolly cries out against Nature’s ‘greatest foe’, high F this time; Middleton hammers out piano chords whereas his role in most of the song is to supply luscious, entrancing arpeggios as from Somnus’ ‘leaden charming rod’. The climax is resolved by recognizing that sleep and death are ultimately the same, so the voice can lull again and the piano resume the arpeggios.
Arthur Somervell’s Into my heart an air that kills (tr. 12) is the ninth of the ten songs he set from Housman’s A Shropshire Lad. Middleton’s accompaniment of smooth, roseate glow conjures a landscape which Connolly seeks longingly to discern yet can only do so on one repeated note with the minimum of energy of which a dying person is capable. At 0:52 she summons up her swansong, beginning ‘That is the land of lost content’, marked Con molto espressione. Connolly’s rich tone brings to it a noble, dignified acceptance that transcends resignation, while its very terseness makes it more precious. The cycle is usually song by a baritone, for whom its military service association is more fitting, but this song can be sung by a mezzo and Connolly gets across the appreciation of a failing spirit and then final flowering of energy better than I have heard from many baritones. Christopher Maltman accompanied by Graham Johnson (Naxos 8.557113) recorded in 1998 is for me the most sensitive, conveying his appreciation of past joys with a touch of twilight tone and a discernible but not effusive glow to his swansong.
Gustav Holst also set Journey’s End. Holst’s is a more pithy and bleak setting than Bridge’s: the progression is swift, the distinction musically between son and mother more marked. The boy’s questions are direct and purposeful, beginning with firmly rising phrases. The mother’s answers are more considered and her melody falls in meditation. With Connolly there’s concern in the boy’s questions while the mother’s response is full of sorrowing appreciation of impending tragedy. Middleton’s piano creates an atmosphere of desolation from the minimalist backcloth Holst supplies. The closing chord, wholly in the bass clef, evokes the pitiless depth of the burial place. I compared the 2010 recording by mezzo Alice Coote with Graham Johnson (Hyperion CDA67888). Timing at 2:32 to Connolly/Middleton’s 2:04, Coote/Johnson take more note of the first element of Holst’s Molto Adagio marking, but I would prefer to hear more sense of progression. There’s a heart-breaking, ironic radiance to Coote’s voice, but giving the song more space brings an unbearably marmoreal quality to everything while Connolly/Middleton realize the song’s dynamic contrasts more sensitively.
Charles Hubert Hastings Parry is represented by Weep you no more, sad fountains, a simple yet satisfyingly elegant setting. While Parry makes the music the same for both verses, as you’d expect in a strophic song, he adds the twist of moving from G minor in the first strophe to G major in the second, to create the transformation from a wish to banish sadness to a lullaby for the sun in gratitude for the rejuvenating power of sleep and the warmth of a new day. There are some deft modifications along the way, such as adding warmth in the second strophe by putting the bass G which begins the recurring piano motif an octave lower. Middleton introduces and Connolly takes up a comfortably lilting, even rhapsodic, progression which begins with serious intent yet is ever shapely and the transformation to lullaby is alluringly solicitous. I compared the 2015 recording by James Gilchrist and Andrew West (Somm Recordings SOMMCD 257). Timing at 2:39 to Connolly/Middleton’s 2:19, they take more note of the latter element of the Lento sostenuto marking. This makes West’s introduction more plaintive and Gilchrist’s opening more of an aching yearning, with a progression less dramatic than Connolly’s but more inwardness that brings out Parry’s lyricism. Exquisitely done, but Connolly brings more feeling of lullaby.
Charles Villiers Stanford’s A soft day is from A sheaf of songs from Leinster, ‘soft’ in Irish meaning ‘wet’, a song in praise of rain’s refreshing effect on the landscape, especially the leaves from which it drips in unhurried descents with rests before the next drop. Maybe Stanford knew and recalled the snakes similarly dropping from the Fury Alecto’s head in Purcell’s Music for a while? Stanford’s song, on the other hand, delights in the shrouding of all things dramatic. Nothing could be simpler but everything is beautifully in place, which Connolly and Middleton fully appreciate. I compared the 1996 recording by mezzo Bernadette Greevy with Hugh Tinney (Naxos 8.557559-60). Greevy is unmistakeably appreciative with a fuller projection interestingly offset by the artful understatement of Tinney, but this enhanced for me Connolly’s appreciative ease, itself offset by Middleton’s subtle glow as the accompaniment becomes more elaborate while the song progresses.
Cecil Armstrong Gibbs’ Sailing Homeward is a declaration in wonder of the expanse and eternity of nature in multifarious forms, delivered by Connolly with an engaging blend of solemnity and excitement. Middleton contributes a suitably portentous parade of chords, but at the denouement bursts into life and then Connolly too is released in exultant fulfilment.
E. J. Moeran’s Twilight is an evocation of the gathering shades and, in its unruffled certainty of line, for me it brings to mind Ireland’s The Holy Boy. The singer thinks of the departed and expresses gratitude for their kindness when she was young. Middleton gives us a dusky atmosphere of increasing gloom – listen out for the closing knell, contrasted with which Connolly is engagingly hospitable. The one moment of loudness, the brief affirmation of faith that ‘death cannot last’, is firm yet I find less effective than Connolly’s benevolence, of which the rest of the song is full. I compared the 2008 recording by Roderick Williams and John Talbot (Chandos CHAN 10596). Taking 1:48 against Connolly/Middleton’s 2:09, they emphasise the latter element of the marking Lento moderato which celebrates a fresh simplicity and conviction of voice and pianism. But you can’t believe the youthful Williams had friends ‘long ago’: Connolly’s more mature voice and wish to savour experiences gives a more credible edge to the recollections.
Ivor Gurney’s Thou didst delight my eyes is an object lesson in the sensitive setting of verse, as the state of being in love is presented with a blend of warmth, humility, passionate reaction, but also longer-term realism. Connolly and Middleton match this with a mix of emotive fullness and majestic control. I compared the 2008 recording by mezzo Susan Bickley with Iain Burnside (Naxos 8.572151). Timing at 2:05 to Connolly/Middleton’s 3:05, an amazing difference, Bickley/Burnside are more Allegretto than the marking Poco Andante. Instead of control to admire, here’s a sparkle in the eye. This lover is full of enthusiasm, even impetuosity, but thereby short-changes harmonic warmth and Connolly/Middleton’s sense of having meditated upon the experience and continuing to do so.
The fields are full sports a buoyant start and accompaniment from Middleton, like flowers whirring in Monet-like shimmer in the breeze, and a growingly rhapsodic Connolly depicting an old couple stretched out in beautiful recline that sums up the character, however gnarled, they have acquired through lives of endeavour. I compared the Kitty Whately/Middleton CD again (Champs Hill CHRCD094). Whately brings an attractive, appreciative freshness of a young person admiring the old. The mature Connolly conveys more empathy with the old. In the earlier CD, Middleton seems a touch more reserved. Whately was also comparatively favoured in the recording perspective. Connolly and Middleton are more a partnership of equal balance and involvement. Connolly’s lovely shaping of the summative line of the first part of the song, ‘More sweetness than the sense can bear’ (tr. 23, 0:23), has Middleton then unmistakably blossoming in response.
In All night under the moon, a pair of plovers are flying, ‘wandering voices of love’. Seeing them, the singer and her partner imagine they too are flying. Dedicated by Gurney to his wife, there’s a comparable intensity to that of this CD’s title song. This is another song whose effects are assuredly placed, allowing Connolly’s delivery to be raptly sustained while Middleton can also enjoy the rich piano colouring but pearly closing chords too, creating a haunting nightscape. Timing at 3:12 to Connolly/Middleton’s 3:25, Bickley and Burnside (Naxos 8.572151) favour the earlier aspect of the marking Poco Adagio. Bickley has a smaller tone than Connolly, but it’s a distinctive piping, crystalline one, conveying intimacy and very quickly ecstasy, yet Connolly/Middleton’s greater breadth allows Connolly to reveal the expansive phrasing and Middleton to provide more poise.
Rebecca Clarke also set The Cloths of Heaven. This is a fastidious setting in which a detailed appreciation of the cloths, with the varying colours of the heavens, by the voice, is set against a very delicate piano accompaniment providing a ubiquitous lustre. Connolly and Middleton convince us of the preciousness and variety of these cloths. The idealism of presenting them as a gift is confronted by the reality, as a high F on ‘I’ invades the texture, when the singer, owning her poverty, can only give her dreams. The ending of the song poignantly celebrates the generosity of that gift through Connolly’s anguished voice and Middleton’s writhing piano accompaniment, so we’re left to meditate on richness and its cost. Where Dunhill’s setting earlier on this CD looks back comfortably to the nineteenth century, Clarke’s contemporary one is very much in line with the twentieth century angst of sacrifice.
Michael Tippett’s Songs for Ariel are from Shakespeare’s The tempest and to be sung by an actor. He was therefore considerate in terms of their vocal range, but expected their articulation to be varied. The CD booklet has an unfortunate typo – the first two songs are sung to, not by Ferdinand. In the first, Come unto these yellow sands, Tippett asks for a bark for ‘Bow wow’, preferably spoken but also pitched for singing. Connolly chooses a pitched parlando effect, but it’s too soft for watch dogs. I compared the 2016 recording by Ian Bostridge with Antonio Pappano (Warner Classics 9029594473). Bostridge has a more realistic spoken bark and generally acts the song more. Connolly sings it more formally, I’d say like an amiable but slightly wary housekeeper; yet she brings a saucy swagger to the rooster’s ‘Cock-a-diddle-dow’, which I prefer to Bostridge’s more bumptious parlando. Middleton’s piano conjures the adventure of a strange, delicately fashioned island, while Pappano’s introduction treats ‘espress.’ as being weightier in the left hand. Connolly’s fine control is more moving in the second song, Full fathom five, which she realizes as an eloquent elegy, her smoothness presenting a grateful appreciation, the closing knell, ‘Ding-dong, bell’ a beneficent peal. This latter appears the first time as a successfully pitched ghostly parlando, before being softly sung. Bostridge/Pappano, timing at 2:05 to Connolly/Middleton’s 1:50, give us a slower Lento, Bostridge articulating the words creepily with an actor’s fascination which is infectious, pointing up the sorcery associations of the text, including an edgier parlando ‘Ding-dong’ first time. The final song, Where the bee sucks, is marked Fast and cheerful and Middleton sets the mood conveying delight in the trills of his introduction. Connolly’s dotted-quaver/semiquaver rhythmic clusters are articulated lightly enough, as marked, but for me somehow her tone is rather dour. From Pappano’s more throwaway introduction, he and Bostridge present the song with a touch more gusto and evident smile.
This CD ends with a Farewell which is also a beginning: a first recording of a song written for Connolly by Mark-Anthony Turnage, setting a poem by Stevie Smith which is refreshingly unsentimental and not a bit elegiac. Permission to reprint wasn’t available when the CD booklet was printed, but you can find the text in Smith’s Collected poems plus a cartoon of herself expansively gesticulating. Its message is thanks for everything, I’ve enjoyed it all, even the things I didn’t care for, and I hope all keeps going well, not, like the rest of this CD, what a pity it’s no longer here for me or as pure as it was. What comes across from Turnage’s setting and Connolly’s singing is an expansive gesticulation of love, first spreading the dust on the grave from a great height, the farewells coming as if from the horizon. This is the song with the highest sustained tessitura on this CD, yet it also has a tellingly unaccompanied low passage to acknowledge other universes. To end, a ‘Ding-dong’, more tinselly than Tippett’s, but it’s his pristine sound world that Turnage most recalls. Middleton is, as ever, an effective supporting presence, a nonchalantly bluesy onlooker at first but then inhabiting the energy of living creatures and the lights in the heavens. The bell is his turn for highest tessitura, this time soft.
This is a wonderful selection, showing how influential the RCM has been in the development of English song in performances from Connolly and Middleton of exemplary commitment and luminosity. If it seems preoccupied with innocence, love and loss, capturing moments of intimacy and sacrifice and often providing relief too, these are elements of all great songs. What the English psyche seems specially to contain is an intrinsic sense of melancholy or elegy that can be traced back to the songs of Dowland and Purcell.
Previous review: John Quinn
Muriel HERBERT (1897-1984) The Lost Nightingale (1938-39) [2:12]
John IRELAND (1879-1962) Earth’s Call (1918) [4:57]; The Three Ravens (1920) [3:47]
Thomas Frederick DUNHILL (1877-1946) The Cloths of Heaven, Op. 30, no. 3 (before 1912) [2:08]
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983) Goddess of Night (1920) [2:14]
Frank BRIDGE (1879-1941) Journey’s End (1925) [3:42]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976) A Charm of Lullabies, Op. 41 (1947) [11:55]
Sir Arthur SOMERVELL (1863-1937) Into my heart an air that kills (1904) [2:00]
Gustav HOLST (1874-1934) Journey’s End, H174 (1929) [2:04]
BRIDGE Where she lies asleep (1914) [3:25]; Come to me in my dreams (1906) [3:29]
BRITTEN A Sweet Lullaby (1947) ed. Matthews [3:56]; Somnus, the humble god (1947) ed. Matthews [2:06]
Sir Charles Hubert Hastings PARRY (1848-1918) Weep you no more, sad fountains (1895-96) [2:19]
Sir Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924) A soft day, Op. 140, no. 3 (1913) [2:49]
Cecil Armstrong GIBBS (1889-1960) Sailing Homeward (1934) [1:42]
E. J. (Ernest John) MOERAN (1894-1950) Twilight (1920, rev. 1936) [2:09]
Ivor GURNEY (1890-1937) Thou didst delight my eyes (1921) [3:05]; The fields are full (1920) [1:41]; All night under the moon (1918) [3:25]
Rebecca CLARKE (1886-1979) The Cloths of Heaven (c.1912) [2:13]
Sir Michael TIPPETT (1905-1998) Songs for Ariel (1962) [4:40]
Mark-Anthony TURNAGE (1960- ) Farewell (2016) [3:25]