12 June 2018

June 2018 RECORDING OF THE MONTH: COME TO ME IN MY DREAMS – 120 Years of Song from the Royal College of Music (Dame Sarah Connolly, mezzo-soprano; Joseph Middleton, piano; Chandos CHAN 10944)

June 2018 RECORDING OF THE MONTH: COME TO ME IN MY DREAMS - 120 Years of Song from the Royal College of Music (Chandos CHAN 10944)FRANK BRIDGE (1879 – 1941), BENJAMIN BRITTEN (1913 – 1976), REBECCA CLARKE (1886 – 1979), THOMAS FREDERICK DUNHILL (1877 – 1946), CECIL ARMSTRONG GIBBS (1889 – 1960), IVOR GURNEY (1890 – 1937), MURIEL HERBERT (1897 – 1984), GUSTAV HOLST (1874 – 1934), HERBERT HOWELLS (1892 – 1983), JOHN IRELAND (1879 – 1962), ERNEST JOHN MOERAN (1894 – 1950), SIR CHARLES HUBERT HASTINGS PARRY (1848 – 1918), SIR ARTHUR SOMERVELL (1863 – 1937), SIR CHARLES VILLIERS STANFORD (1852 – 1924), SIR MICHAEL TIPPETT (1905 – 1998), and MARK-ANTHONY TURANGE (born 1960): Come to Me in My Dreams – 120 Years of Song from the Royal College of MusicDame Sarah Connolly, mezzo-soprano; Joseph Middleton, piano [Recorded in Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, UK, on 22, 23, and 25 September 2017, and 7 April 2018; Chandos CHAN 10944; 1 CD, 77:18; Available from Chandos, Naxos Direct, Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

Eulogizing his brother Robert in 1968, Senator Edward Kennedy spoke of the slain man’s penchant for first perceiving his world’s wrongs and then toiling to right them. A century before an assassin’s bullet ended the life of Robert Kennedy, another man of vision perceived a need and sought to fill it. In many ways a stranger in his adopted country and never allowed to forget it, Queen Victoria’s consort Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha nonetheless observed aspects of British society with rare perceptiveness and clarity. A Continental man exposed in his youth to Europe’s great cultural consortia, he recognized in music-loving Britain a lamentable lack of rigorous, state-supported tuition for aspiring professional musicians. In the months prior to his untimely death in 1861, the Prince Consort advocated the establishment of a national academy dedicated to the training of musicians, an initiative that came to fruition, albeit ineffectually, more than a decade later. Under the guidance of Sir George Grove and the patronage of Albert’s son, the eventual King Edward VII, the school that arose from Albert’s endeavors evolved into the Royal College of Music, which in 1883 admitted its first ninety-two scholars.

The first fourteen decades of RCM’s history have been guided by the leadership of ten directors, amongst whose ranks are esteemed musicians including Grove, Sir Hubert Parry, Sir George Dyson, Sir David Willcocks, and the present director, Colin Lawson. Even more awe-inspiring than surveying the accomplishments of this decury of directors is contemplating the voices that have echoed in RCM’s South Kensington corridors, both literally and figuratively. Reverberating in that storied space, the formative sounds of some of Britain’s greatest compositional talents forever qualify RCM as a shrine to the Art of Song. It is this legacy of nurturing the continuing vitality of English Song that this Chandos release celebrates by presenting works by some of the institution’s most distinguished alumni and faculty.

Spanning 120 years of repertory yielded by RCM’s commitment to educating and encouraging composers, Come to Me in My Dreams partners two of Britain’s most gifted interpreters of Art Songs, mezzo-soprano Dame Sarah Connolly and pianist Joseph Middleton, in performances that are as emotionally engaging as they are stylistically varied. From the lush late Romanticism of the College’s early years to the stark sounds of more recent decades, the music on this disc tunefully appraises RCM’s influence on more than a century of Britain’s musical life. Here singing with exemplary but unpretentious diction and impeccable musicality, Connolly could frankly make a musical history of pickling in the home counties compelling. Performing a programme of Art Songs that might have been composed specially for her, she honors RCM with a recital that rivals the finest Lieder recordings in the discography.

Whether lamenting man’s inconstancy as Purcell’s Dido or communicating the grim forebodings of Wagner’s Brangäne and Fricka, Connolly’s voice is a richly-textured instrument in which subtlety and sublimity meld organically with splendor and majesty. Aspects of her performances evoke memories of the work of some of her most venerable fellow interpreters of repertory in English: Helen Watts’s straightforwardness, Dame Janet Baker’s stylistic versatility, Rosina Raisbeck’s innate theatricality, and Jan DeGaetani’s verbal flair, for example. In the context of the selections on Come to Me in My Dreams, however, Connolly’s singing brings to mind the performances of none of her operatically-inclined colleagues as vividly as it recalls the vocalism of Lancashire-born popular singer Cilla Black. Like Black at her best, Connolly wields a sensitive but stern femininity that is used as neither an excuse nor a weapon. Reinforced by the probing lucidity of Middleton’s pianism, the mezzo-soprano’s singing on this disc is wonderfully robust, prissing and purring altogether banned from her musical demeanor. In Connolly’s and Middleton’s handling, the merits of the music on Come to Me in My Dreams are revealed to be gratifyingly consistent: commendably little disparity in quality separates the most familiar songs from their least-known comrades.

The musical odyssey of Come to Me in My Dreams begins with Muriel Herbert’s ‘The Lost Nightingale,’ here performed by both voice and piano with none of the artifice that can ruin even well-sung performances of this expertly-crafted piece. Interpreted by Connolly and Middleton with disarming simplicity, John Ireland’s ‘Earth’s Call’ is legitimately a ‘sylvan rhapsody,’ the singer’s delivery of the vocal line emerging from the accompaniment with the brilliance of rays of sunlight penetrating a forest canopy. Ireland’s ‘The Three Ravens’ is also given a reading of poetic savvy. ‘The Cloths of Heaven’ from Thomas Frederick Dunhill’s The Wind among the Reeds should be in the repertory of every singer capable of performing it with the sentimental sincerity and glamorous tone with which Connolly limns its eloquent melody. All of Herbert Howells’s music also deserves to be performed more frequently, but Connolly and Middleton make an especially strong case for greater exposure for ‘Goddess of Night.’ The hauntingly perceptive use of text that Howells cultivated in his English-language Requiem, Hymnus Paradisi and the motet Take Him, Earth, For Cherishing is evident throughout the two minutes of ‘Goddess of Night,’ heightened in this performance by the singer’s nuanced but natural enunciation of the vowels that drive the music.

Frank Bridge’s studies at RCM bestrode the turn of the Twentieth Century, and his music linked the past of Beethoven, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky with the future of Rubbra, Britten, and Tippett. Like many of his confederates in what Howells described as the ‘cosy family’ of RCM, song often provided Bridge with respites from the horrors of the Great War and professional frustrations. Bridge’s ‘Where she lies asleep’ and ‘Come to me in my dreams’ offer the listener solace, too, the atmosphere of each song awakened in the hearer’s imagination by Connolly’s and Middleton’s vivid musical colloquy. The composer’s setting of Humbert Wolfe’s ‘Journey’s End’ is a harrowing acceptance of finality made piercingly personal by the effortless candor of the performance on this disc. Gustav Holst’s rendering of ‘Journey’s End,’ the ninth of the twelve songs that constitute his Opus 48 (H 174), is marginally lighter in mood but no less moving than Bridge’s song. Middleton plays Holst’s music adroitly, and Connolly’s phrasing highlights the psychological depth of Holst’s reaction to the text.

Among the composers whose music is performed on Come to Me in My Dreams, Benjamin Britten’s name and songs are likely the most familiar to listeners beyond Britain’s borders. Dating from 1947, Britten’s Opus 41 A Charm of Lullabies is hardly the best-known of his song collections, however, and it is heartening to observe that, nearly forty-two years after the composer’s death, there are still worthwhile products of his creativity awaiting widespread discovery. Virtually all of Britten’s songs are tonally ambiguous, some of them deceptively so, but they share a near-obsessive commitment to textual integrity. The words of ‘A Cradle Song’ are articulated as crisply in Britten’s music as in Connolly’s singing. This composer’s writing for the piano seldom follows predictable harmonic paths, but Middleton’s playing, whilst reveling in the music’s ingenuity, divulges the inner logic that is the foundation of each of these songs. He and Connolly perform ‘The Highland Balou’ and ‘Sephestia’s Lullaby’ with the thoughtfully-conceived interaction of chamber musicians, and their traversal of ‘A Charm’ winningly imparts the wry humor of the brusque text. There is a disconcerting ambivalence that defies easy explanation at the heart of ‘The Nurse’s Song,’ not overtly threatening as in ‘A Charm’ but vaguely disquieting, but vocalist and accompanist avoid imposing an interpretive agenda on the song. Here recorded for the first time, Britten’s ‘A Sweet Lullaby’ and ‘Somnus, the humble god,’ both contemporaneous with A Charm of Lullabies, are beguilingly sung, Connolly’s claret-hued timbre bathing the songs in the crepuscular glow that the music invokes.

Its pervasive melancholy transformed into genuine pathos by the emotional honesty of Connolly’s and Middleton’s performance, Sir Arthur Somervell’s ‘Into my heart an air that kills’ from his 1904 adaptation of verses from A. E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad is unexpectedly one of the most affecting songs in this recital. Likewise, listeners for whom Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry’s name summons notions of stodginess may find this performance of ‘Weep you no more, sad fountains,’ one of the six songs in his fourth set of English Lyrics, revelatory. Voice and piano are deployed with keen comprehension of the relationship between words and music. ‘A soft day’ from Sir Charles Villiers Stanford’s A Sheaf of Songs from Leinster (Opus 140) is also sung with assurance, Connolly voicing the line ‘The hills wear a shroud of silver cloud’ with particular radiance.

Cecil Armstrong Gibbs’s 1934 ‘Sailing Homeward’ is another song in which Connolly’s and Middleton’s cooperation produces an ambience of contemplative resignation that lends an aural dimension to this defining niche of the English psyche. The warmth of the mezzo-soprano’s tone as it caresses the strains of E.J. Moeran’s ‘Twilight’ is stimulating, lifting the words off of the page enchantingly. Like many of the pieces on this disc, the songs of Ivor Gurney are too-little-known gems of the repertory, and the three of his songs offered on Come to Me in My Dreams sparkle dazzlingly in these performances. Superlatives are divisively subjective, but how could opposition to the assertion that Gurney’s ‘Thou didst delight my eyes’ is one of the finest songs in the English language be justified? That anyone who has heard Connolly’s voicing of the song could deny the expressive impact of the music or the artist is unthinkable. She and Middleton are no less effective in disclosing the virtues of ‘The fields are full’ and ‘All night under the moon,’ prominent among which is a directness of feeling reminiscent of the Zwei Gesänge of Brahms’s Opus 91.

Rebecca Clarke dedicated her setting of ‘The Cloths of Heaven’ to Gervase Elwes, the tenor who was also the dedicatee and first performer of Vaughan Williams’s On Wenlock Edge. Differences of Fach notwithstanding, Elwes would undoubtedly delight in recognizing Connolly as an artistic legatee, and her singing of Clarke’s music qualifies her as an heiress of the most exalted traditions of Lieder singing of any country and generation. Composed for a 1962 Old Vic production of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Sir Michael Tippett’s Songs for Ariel make use of some of the play’s best-known lines. Connolly’s and Middleton’s approach to ‘Come unto these yellow sands’ is appropriately spritely but unflappably focused. In her singing of the doleful ‘Full fathom five,’ a deluge of heartbreak surges in the line ‘Those are pearls that were his eyes,’ uttered with complete control of rhythm and dynamics. Wings flutter convincingly in Middleton’s playing of the accompaniment to ‘Where the bee sucks,’ and there is an enigmatic whiff of diffidence in Connolly’s voicing of the closing statement of ‘Where the bee sucks, there suck I’—the work of a great actress who also happens to sing splendidly.

Composed for Connolly in 2016, Mark-Anthony Turnage’s ‘Farewell’ constitutes an apt resolution for Come to Me in My Dreams, both as a representative of current trends in British songwriting and as a summation of the musical development that has transpired in the years since the first RCM class occupied their desks. As in all of the selections on this disc, Connolly’s ascents to the top of the stave are projected with a dramatic soprano’s surety, but the inviolable solidity of her tone and the accuracy of her intonation throughout the range are the true hallmarks of her work on this recording. Britain and her music are rarely cited as bastions of spirited expression, but they possess profusions of passion unlike but as earnest and poignant as those of their Continental counterparts. It is perhaps gilding the lily to suggest that Come to Me in My Dreams has been 135 years in the making, but it is no exaggeration to avow that Dame Sarah Connolly’s and Joseph Middleton’s performances of these songs were wholly worth the wait.