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The Exquisite Hour
Franz Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)

Arianna a Naxos [19:09]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833–1897)

Ständchen Op. 106, No 1 (c.1888) [1:40]
Da unten im Tale (Deutsche Volkslieder No. 6) (1894) [1:48]
Nachtwandler Op. 86, No. 3 (c. 1877) [3:29]
Feldeinsamkeit Op. 86, No. 2 (c. 1879) [3:03]
Alte Liebe Op. 72, No 1 (c. 1876) [3:00]
Die Mainacht Op. 43, No. 2 (c. 1866) [3:31]
Von ewiger Liebe Op. 43, No.1 (1864) [4:43]
Reynaldo HAHN (1875-1947)

À Chloris [2:59]
L’Énamourée [3:22]
Trois jours de vendange [3:12]
L’Heure exquise [2:30]
Quand je fus pris au pavillon [1:21]
Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD (1897-1957)

Glückwunsch Op. 38, No.1 (1947) [2:34]
Alt-Spanisch op. 38, No 3 (1940) [1:24]
Sterbelied Op. 14, No 1 [3:46]
Gefasster Abschied Op. 14 No. 4 [3:22]
Kurt WEILL (1900-1950)

Lost in the Stars (from Lost in the Stars) [2:50]
Speak Low (from One Touch of Venus) [2:29]
John IRELAND (1879-1962)

Her Song [2:57]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)

Tit for Tat [2:05]
Sarah Connolly (mezzo)
Eugene Asti (piano)
rec. live, St. John’s, Smith Square, London, 3 October 2005. DDD

In this live recital Sarah Connolly and her partner, Eugene Asti, give us a beautifully laid-out programme. It’s quite clear that a good deal of thought has gone into the choice and ordering of the music and so it makes sense to comment on the performances in the order in which they’re given.

The Haydn cantata with which they begin is an interesting piece, not least because over half of its length is given over to two substantial recitatives, the second of which is particularly dramatic. Miss Connolly shows her operatic instincts and experience in this performance, projecting both recitatives strongly. In the first aria, marked Largo, she puts over the longing in the music most successfully and in the second aria, a larghetto, she sings with deep feeling. Eugene Asti’s accompaniment is delightfully pointed. This is a very successful opening item.

Next comes a group of songs by Brahms. Without exception these are well done. The only slight criticism I’d have is that perhaps the choice of songs is insufficiently varied. Only ‘Ständchen’, with which the selection begins, is really in a lively tempo. That said, there’s abundant life in Miss Connolly’s singing of all these lovely songs. She spins a delectable long line in ‘Nachtwandler’ and is beautifully poised in her reading of ‘Die Mainacht’. Best of all, perhaps, is ‘Von ewiger Liebe’. This is a great song and she gives a superbly committed and involving account of it.

I suspect that on the night the interval came next in order to provide a natural break between the music of Brahms and Hahn. The more I hear of Reynaldo Hahn’s songs the more I like them. He may not attain the levels of accomplishment of Fauré or Poulenc but his music has consistent charm and regularly gives pleasure. Miss Connolly’s begins with ‘À Chloris’. What a lovely song this is! Here singer and pianist capture the grave Bachian beauty of the piece and its elegance too. In ‘L’Énamourée’, which follows, we hear Sarah Connolly’s gorgeously rich voice to full advantage but then there's a lovely light touch evident in her singing of ‘Trois jours de vendange’ and a winning gaiety to ‘Quand je fus pris au pavillon’. Of course, ‘L’Heure exquise’ is the song that has given this CD its title. All that need be said is that the song does indeed sound exquisite.

A group of songs by Korngold makes a most enterprising choice. I’d come across the two songs from Op. 14 before: they’re included in Anne Sofie von Otter’s DG collection, ‘Rendezvous with Korngold’. However, the other two items were new to me. All four offerings have a fine melodic inspiration and there is often more than a touch of nostalgia too. This latter trait is particularly evident in ’Sterbelied’, which gets a wonderful performance. Worthy of passing note is the repeated reference to a little motif from the finale of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony that is contained in the piano part for ‘Gefasster Abschied’.

To end the "official" programme Sarah Connolly treats us to two songs from Broadway shows by Weill. These are show songs of the very highest order. I suspect Miss Connolly loves them because she gives irresistible readings of both. To finish she gives us two English encores. Both are done with much character, especially the Britten number.

I’m usually a bit wary of the "puffs" contained in artist’s biographies. However, on this occasion one caught my eye. A writer in the New York Times described Miss Connolly’s voice as "dark and true, remarkably flexible and filled with the required heat." On the evidence of this recital I’d say that verdict is right on the money. Furthermore this programme shows her to be a wide-ranging and imaginative artist, equally capable of doing justice to Haydn and to Broadway. She sings in three foreign languages and, so far as I could tell, her pronunciation in all three tongues is impeccable – as is her diction in whatever language she chooses to sing. There seems to be a palpable sense of communication with her audience, fully vindicating her decision to record this recital live rather than in the studio.

There are useful, succinct notes. The sung texts are provided together with an English translation where appropriate. My only complaint – and it’s quite a serious one – is that the typeface is so small that I had great trouble reading the booklet. The recorded sound is very good. I thought the balance between singer and piano was fine throughout, which is pleasing since Eugene Asti’s excellent playing is a vital component of the success of this recital.

This is a gem of a disc. Strictly speaking the CD’s title is, of course, somewhat inaccurate because we get a good deal more than one hour of Miss Connolly’s singing. However, that’s an "inaccuracy" that I’m very happy to forgive and there’s no inaccuracy in describing the recital as exquisite. I enjoyed this disc immensely and I know I will return to it in the future with great pleasure.

John Quinn

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