My True Love Hath My Heart
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
O Waly, Waly (1945-46) [3:44]
How sweet the answer (1957) [1:51]
Corpus Christi Carol (1961) [2:42]
Early one morning (1951-59) [2:29]
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
King David (1919) [5:15]
Come Sing and Dance (1927) [3:58]
John IRELAND (1879-1962)
Her Song (1925) [2:45]
My true love hath my heart (1920) [1:57]
Tryst (1928) [3:24]
Ivor GURNEY (1890-1937)
Sleep (1914) [3:04]
By a Bierside (1916) [4:21]
Gavotte (1919) [3:37]
Lost Love (1934) [4:00]
Michael HEAD (1900-1976)
Foxgloves (1932) [3:39]
Peter WARLOCK (1894-1930)
The First Mercy (1927) [2:51]
Michael HEAD
Cotswold Love (1938) [2:39]
Richard Rodney BENNETT (b. 1936)
A History of the Thé Dansant (1994) [10:33]
Sarah Connolly (mezzo); Malcolm Martineau (piano)
rec. 1-2 February 2011, All Saints’ Church, East Finchley, London
CHANDOS CHAN10691 [63:00]

Is it a sign of aging when one is regularly reminded of the first time one encountered this or that piece of music? Four of the items in this marvellous recital appeared on what I think was Dame Janet Baker’s very first recording, “An Anthology of English Song”, a Saga LP, the young singer so sensitively accompanied by Martin Isepp. Nothing will ever diminish the pleasure of listening to that disc, and I am sure many will feel the same, but it is a measure of the quality of this one from Sarah Connolly, that the performances can be enjoyed just as much, and on their own terms. In the two songs by Herbert Howells that appear in both collections, Connolly makes out a convincing case for a larger scale and canvas. King David, at a slow basic tempo, and with many lingering hesitations throughout, becomes, at five minutes, a very big song indeed, and I think some of the narrative is lost, some simplicity also, and perhaps, paradoxically, even some of the rapture too. I wouldn’t always want to hear this magnificent song given like this, nor Come Sing and Dance quite so full toned and imposing as this either. But the singer’s viewpoint is perfectly valid, and her singing is magnificent. Later in the recital she delivers equally beautiful performances of Howells’ delightful Gavotte and Lost Love. This last, which I had not heard before, is to words from Songs from the Chinese by Clifford Bax, brother of Arnold. There is nothing overtly Chinese about them, but there is a certain delicacy that Howells’ music matches perfectly. A late work, it is so bare and fragile that many would not, I think, recognise the composer.

The recital opens with a group of four Britten songs, three of them folk song arrangements. Britten understood that the strophic form of folk song allows more for mood painting than word painting, and Connolly and her superb accompanist understand this too, so that individual words might be highlighted, but for reasons of expression over and above the word itself. Listen, for example, to the singer’s way with the word “back”, in the phrase “I leaned my back up against some oak.” Such treatment might become a mannerism from a lesser singer, but here, and throughout the recital, it is done with impeccable taste.

In truth, I don’t much care for John Ireland’s exultant response to Sir Philip Sydney’s text in My true love hath my heart, and this song brings out the only negative response I have to Sarah Connolly’s singing, an occasional tendency to allow vibrato to dominate the voice in louder, more passionate passages. Tryst, on the other hand, is a beautifully atmospheric song, its unresolved close underlining the wait for the beloved’s arrival. Her Song is a masterly response to Hardy’s words. The music is exquisite, and the word will also have to do, inadequate though it be, for Connolly’s performance, alive to every word, every nuance of every word, certainly one of the most beautiful performances I have ever heard of this song.

Gurney’s two songs also receive performances as fine as any you are likely to hear. The subtlety of the singing can be heard in the two first notes of Sleep, where Connolly’s swells remain tasteful and refined. Michael Head consistently found highly attractive music to carry the words he chose, without necessarily finding, or perhaps even seeking, much in the way of psychological insight. Between the two Head songs lies the single item from Warlock, on the face of it a conventional enough response to Bruce Blunt’s five stanzas celebrating the minor creatures, unmentioned and forgotten, who witnessed the birth of Christ alongside the ox and the ass. But listen closely, and you will perceive just what is missing in Head’s songs, and just what we are missing because of Warlock’s early and tragic death.

The booklet notes about all these songs were written by Michael Pilkington, and they are just the job. Knowing that Warlock and Blunt were arrested, drunk and disorderly, in Cadogan Street in 1927, is just the kind of anecdote that helps appreciation of music, and the notes are full of such details. Richard Rodney Bennett’s three-song mini-cycle is introduced by Meg Peacocke, who wrote the words, and who is the composer’s sister. The singer also tells us that she wanted to include some songs by “a living composer who was somehow connected to the other music recorded here.” Well, the fact is that these songs stick out like a sore thumb, but no matter, because they are tremendous. The three poems explore different aspects of couples on fashionable continental trips in the 1920s. Those who know Bennett’s music will not be surprised at how adept he is at integrating twenties pastiche – foxtrot and tango – into his own style, nor at the gently touching piano postlude that follows the revelation that a bundle of old postcards shows how, decades ago, the couple “once…were seen to be in love”.

Malcolm Martineau’s accompaniments are immensely subtle, detailed and full of character. His role in the success of this recital is immeasurable. All the sung words are provided and the recording is faultless. In short, this is a most beautiful recital of English song. I feel sure it will do for a young collector what Janet Baker’s did for me so many years ago, and praise doesn’t come higher than that.

William Hedley

A gorgeous recital of English song that should, in a just world, become a classic.