BBC Proms: Dame Sarah Connolly & Joseph Middleton – English Songs

Proms at the Cadogan Hall: Dame Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano, above), Joseph Middleton (piano, below)

Stanford A Soft Day Op.140/3 (from A Sheaf of Songs from Leinster) (1913) (from 7:15 on the broadcast)
Parry Weep you no more, sad fountains (from English Lyrics Set 4) (1896) (9:58)
Vaughan Williams Love-Sight (from The House of Life) (1903) (12:18)
Gurney Thou didst delight my eyes (1921) (16:53)
Somervell A Shropshire Lad – ‘Into my heart an air that kills’ (1904) (20:19)
Bridge Come to me in my dreams (1906) (22:45)
Howells Goddess of Night (1920)
Bridge Journey’s End (1925) (28:19)
Britten A Sweet Lullaby (36:34); Somnus (40:31) (both 1947, world premieres)
Holst Journey’s End (1929) (42:50)
Britten A Charm of Lullabies Op.41 (1947) (45:09, 47:22, 49:08, 51:06, 52:48)
Lisa Illean Sleeplessness … Sails (2018, world premiere) (57:31)
Mark-Anthony Turnage Farewell (2016, world premiere)

Cadogan Hall, Monday 6 August 2018

You can listen this Prom by clicking here The times given on this page refer to the starting times on the broadcast itself

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood. Photo of Sarah Connolly (c) Jan Capinski

11 composers and four world premieres in an hour. Not a recipe for sleep and respite, you might think, but Dame Sarah Connolly and Joseph Middleton constructed between them an enchanting tour of English song, ending up at some far-flung outposts.

For anyone new to the form this would have been the ideal introduction, especially as Dame Sarah was singing with wonderful clarity and diction. I hardly needed to glance at the texts, for her words and expressions, added to those of Middleton’s carefully and beautifully crafted piano parts, did the job perfectly. The structure of the recital was very satisfying too, with natural pauses at the end of a short group of songs for applause and the intake of breath – and, as the subject matter was sleep and dreams, it ensured nobody had fallen foul of the listening criteria in the hot conditions!

The two began in Ireland, presenting the beatific calm of Winifred LettsA Soft Day, as set by Stanford, with the ‘wind from the south’ that some of us in the hot Cadogan Hall would have been longing for! So too for the subject of Parry’s Weep you no more, sad fountains, with its flowing piano lines. This pair from the fathers of English song led to one of the ‘sons’ – Vaughan Williams, and a deeply felt Love-Sight from his song-cycle The House of Life – and Ivor Gurney, his moving Thou didst delight my eyes.

We moved on to Arthur Somervell, the brief but tenderly devastating Into my heart an air that kills (from A Shropshire Lad) and then Come to me in my dreams, an expressive, earlier example of Frank Bridge’s chromatic credentials. Bridge appeared later with the lovelorn Journey’s End, following Herbert Howells’ magical Goddess Of Night – where Connolly allowed the text plenty of room.

Britten’s interpretations of sleep and dreams range from the calm to the nightmarish, aspects that surfaced throughout his song-cycle A Charm of Lullabies, which was given with two extra songs intended for the cycle but left unused. Recently ‘repaired’ by Colin Matthews, A Sweet Lullaby and Somnus were receiving their world premieres and were interesting finds if not quite reaching the level of intensity in the cycle itself.

Britten starts his night with A Cradle Song, before Connolly’s Scots accent (she was born relatively close by in County Durham!) brought an extremely authentic voice to The Highland Balou. The fifth number, The Nurse’s Song, is structured like the Dirge from Britten’s earlier Serenade for tenor, horn and strings. It focused everyone in the hall on the vivid storytelling of Connolly’s voice, from which she moved through humour, intense scolding (scary, too!) and soft slumber. The music ranged wildly, Britten’s wandering piano writing recalling Shostakovich in A Cradle Song, while the clustered chords of the refrain in Sephestia’s Lullaby spoke vividly in a language Janáček would understand. Connolly’s characterisations were brilliant, the audience impatient to clap between numbers initially but held in rapt concentration at the end.

In between the Britten discoveries, Gustav Holst contributed a sparse but telling interpretation of Journey’s End, which Connolly again sang with deep expression, while Australian composer Lisa Illean gave us another world premiere, a farewell of her own in Sleeplessness … Sails. This was a very slow-moving piece where Connolly held admirable control, despite the music’s seeming reluctance to move on. Arguably more effective was Turnage’s Farewell, a profound statement which ended with the composer bounding on the platform, delighted at the interpretation. It would be lovely to hear more from him in song – and from this pair, too, who delivered a wonderful hour’s escapism to the land of nod!

You can hear Dame Sarah Connolly and Joseph Middleton’s new recital disc Come To Me In My Dreams, which features much of the music heard in this concert, on the Spotify link below:

Wigmore Mondays – Kathryn Rudge & James Baillieu: English song

kathryn-rudge

Kathryn Rudge (mezzo-soprano), Gary Pomeroy (viola) & James Baillieu (piano, below)

Howells Come sing and dance (1927)

Quilter Go, lovely rose (1922), Now sleeps the crimson petal (1897), Music, when soft voices die (1926)

William Charles Denis Browne To Gratiana, dancing and singing (1913)

Howells Peacock Pie Op.33 (1919)

Ivor Gurney Sleep (1914); Most holy night (1920); The Fields are full (pub. 1928); By a bierside (1916)

Bridge Three songs with viola [Far, far from each other; Where is it that our soul doth go?; Music when soft voices die] (1903-06)

Listen to the BBC broadcast here

Written by Ben Hogwood

Kathryn Rudge has a special affinity with English song, and in particular the music of Herbert Howells. I remember an especially moving account of his most famous song King David at the Wigmore Hall a few years back, and here she and pianist James Baillieu enjoyed the open-air sonorities of his song Come sing and dance (from 1:26 on the broadcast).

Howells is one of several English composers who excelled in the form of song, but who are not heard often in concert programs, so it was gratifying to see these two BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artists trying something different.

Roger Quilter was the most celebrated song composer of the five here, and the selection of three of his most famous songs was lovingly performed. Go, lovely rose (from 6:02), Now sleeps the crimson petal (9:08) an Music, when soft voices die (11:38) all showed off his melodic craft and subtly rapturous word settings, not to mention flowing piano accompaniment that was superbly played by Baillieu.

Most striking of all those here was the biggest rarity, a song by William Denis Browne, who was killed in the First World War. He left a tiny output of music, dying at the age of 27, and this song – To Gratiana dancing and singing (from 13:47) – left a lasting impression with its strong melody and bold, grand piano part.

james-baillieu-clive-bardaAfter the war English composers were attracted to the simple poetry of Walter de la Mare, and Howells delivered a short, six-part song cycle Peacock Pie, setting verses for children. Here it was oddly enchanting, especially the story of Tired Tim (19:37), who took an age to get up the stairs, the strangely charming figure of Mrs MacQueen or the lumbering profile of The dunce (25:35), a kind of march gone wrong. Rudge could perhaps have used more variety in her portrayal of the characters here, but Howells’ invention and distinctive harmonies shone through, especially in the magical Full Moon (26:45).

On to the tragic figure of Ivor Gurney, much of whose output remains unpublished after his tragically early move to the asylum. The quartet of songs here were dramatic in the extreme though – a resigned Sleep (30:51), a protective Most Holy Night (33:50) the heady, summer stillness of The fields are full (39:49) – vividly caught by both performers – and finally the terrible truth of By a bierside. Written in the trenches in France, its coda (43:20) sings of how ‘it is most grand to die’. This was the loudest and most painful music of the concert, but Baillieu’s response was magical, subtly moving the music through the keys to reach a less painful finish.

Finally we heard songs by Britten’s teacher and friend Frank Bridge, a masterful viola player who wrote his own instrument into these three songs, written between 1903 and 1906. In this performance they were highly charged, and could perhaps have done with more light and shade from singer and viola, but these minor gripes were outdone by the enjoyment of Bridge’s turbulent writing in Far, far from each other (47:10), the resignation of Where is it that our soul doth go? (from 51:00) and finally the warmer heart of Music, when soft voices die (54:45).

As an encore Rudge and Baillieu chose perfectly, opting for Alan Robert Murray’s song I’ll walk beside you (58:33), uncannily sharing a wish for a better, more inclusive world.

Further listening

Kathryn Rudge and James Baillieu made their debut album as a partnership for Champs Hill Records in 2014 – and it complements the songs in this concert perfectly.

On record: Heracleitus (EM Records)

heracleitus

Butterworth: Songs (1910/11)*/** – When the Lad for Longing Sighs; Bredon Hill; On the Idle Hill of Summer; With Rue My Heart is Laden. Songa (1911/12)*/** – Fill a Glass with Golden Wine; On the Way to Kew

Gurney: Ludlow and Teme (1919)*/**/***. Adagio (1924)***. Songs*/** – The Cloths of Heaven (1918); Severn Meadows (1917); By a Bierside (1916).

Warlock: Songs */*** – Heracleitus (1917); Sweet Content (1919)

*Charles Daniels (tenor); **Michael Dussek (piano); ***Bridge Quartet [Colin Twigg, Catherine Schofield, violins; Michael Schofield, viola; Lucy Wilding, cello]

Summary

The centenary of the Battle of the Somme has seen various commemorations in music, with this latest release from EM Records among the most significant. It centres on two composers – one of whom died during the Somme offensive, while the other never recovered from being gassed at Passchendaele the next year. The disc also opens-out appreciation of their output in featuring autonomous pieces for string quartet and as accompaniment to several of the songs.

What’s the music like?

All these forces are brought together in Ludlow and Teme, Ivor Gurney’s song-cycle on verse from A.E. Housman’s collection A Shropshire Lad. A notable though unstable creative force in those years after the cessation of war, it was long considered among Gurney’s largest and most inclusive works; its expressive range more than compensating for any lack of sustained intensity across its six songs. One of these, ‘On the Idle Hill of Summer’, was set by George Butterworth prior to the War – his version confirming both a greater emotional lightness and textural subtlety which are no less apposite. Also included are two Butterworth settings of W. E. Henley, suffused by that dry wit and wistful charm emblematic of the Edwardian era. The disc closes with more Gurney – moving backwards in time so the pathos of W.B. Yeats’s The Cloths of Heavens, and poignancy of the composer’s Severn Meadows, is rounded-off by the eloquence of John Masefield’s By a Bierside in what ranks among Gurney’s greatest settings.

Two songs by Peter Warlock (aka Philip Heseltine, who seems to have avoided conscription via a mixture of guile and happenstance) are among several conceived with accompaniment for string quartet, and have been idiomatically arranged as such by John Mitchell. Of these, Heracleitus is a setting of W.J. Cory (after Callimachus) as evinces the influence of Bernard van Dieren in its sombre tread and harmonic richness, while that of Thomas Dekker’s Sweet Content exudes the chic vacuity which is often to be encountered in Warlock’s lesser songs.

The other two works are also first recordings. Odd that Butterworth’s Suite for String Quartet should have had to wait 15 years since publication, as it is the composer’s largest extant piece and offers valuable insight into his wresting with abstract forms. The opening Andante is well argued, though the Scherzando and Allegro might profitably have been integrated, while the fourth movement is insufficiently contrasted with a final Moderato whose faltering progress is indication of a project lacking the ultimate focus. Not so the Adagio from a String Quartet in D minor, seemingly the only surviving chamber work from Gurney’s final manic outburst of creativity and whose heightened emotion bodes well for a hearing of the complete work.

Does it all work?

Yes, when seen as an overall programme that skilfully interweaves its vocal and instrumental items to give a thoughtful and revealing portrait of the two main composers featured herein.

Is it recommended?

Indeed, not least as the contribution of Charles Daniels (best known for his interpretation and editions of Baroque music) is so attuned to the songs in question. Michael Dussek is as ever an attentive accompanist, and the Bridge Quartet continues its persuasive exploration of English music. Both recording and annotations are up to the customary high standard of EM Records.

Richard Whitehouse

For more information on their extensive catalogue of English music, visit the EM Records website