This new Chandos disc brings together one of my favourite singers,
Sarah Connolly, and one of my favourite musical genres, namely
English song. So it’s a promising prospect and, happily, the
disc lives up to all my expectations.
As Michael Pilkington puts it in his useful booklet notes, “Herbert
Howells takes pride of place in this recording.” Miss Connolly
offers a song that is not only one of Howells’ finest compositions
but also, I would suggest, one of the finest of all English
songs. King David is a masterpiece and Miss Connolly
delivers one of the best performances of it that I can recall
hearing. She conveys the melancholy of the piece but she also
puts across its nobility – after all, this is a king we’re observing.
No less admirable as a song is Come sing and dance. This
is music of rapt joy, which Connolly sings superbly. The word
‘Alleluia’ recurs frequently in this song and every time it
does Howells sets it to wonderful melismatic phrases. In the
final stanza the music attains an ecstatic air which, in this
performance certainly, puts me in mind of some of the composer’s
finest liturgical music. Perhaps less well known is Gavotte.
In its homage to an antique instrumental form in the accompaniment
Michael Pilkington very perceptively compares this song with
Denis Browne’s wonderful song To Gratiana Dancing
and Singing. As well as enjoying Sarah Connolly’s singing,
this song is one of many opportunities on the disc to savour
the excellent pianism of Malcolm Martineau.
There are also two magnificent songs by Howells’ great friend
from Gloucester days, Ivor Gurney. Sleep is one of Gurney’s
most inspired settings, deeper, I think, than Peter Warlock’s
of the same words, excellent though Warlock’s is. I love Connolly’s
performance. She’s really eloquent in her delivery and brings
to the song – as she does to everything else on the disc – rich,
full vocal tone and an impressive clarity of diction; she understands
the words and cares about them. The other Gurney song, By
a Bierside, is a setting of a 1910 poem by John Masefield.
One of several remarkable things about this song is that Gurney
wrote it in the trenches during World War One. He set the poem
from memory, making only a handful of small errors in his recollection.
It’s an imposing song and Miss Connolly invests it with suitable
feeling. At first sight - or hearing - the quasi-triumphalist
way in which Gurney sets the last few words of the text – “it
is most grand to die” – seems at variance with the preceding
words and with the way in which Gurney has set them. But what
thoughts of mortality were in Gurney’s mind at the time and
in the place that he composed this song? Was there irony here;
a touch of ‘dulce et decorum est’? Perhaps we get a fuller insight
when he concludes the setting by having the singer repeat just
the words “most grand” softly over hushed piano chords. Connolly
and Martineau catch the poignant mood perfectly.
The songs by Sir Richard Rodney Bennett are interesting on several
levels – is this their first recording, I wonder? There are
three songs, all to poems by the composer’s sister, Meg Peacocke.
She contributes a lively and interesting note in the booklet,
telling us that the poems hark back to memories of her parents
and also stem from her own fascination with the 1920s. The poems
are clever and her brother has set them most attractively. The
second song, entitled ‘Slow Foxtrot’, includes the line “elegant,
à la mode”, and that phrase actually describes very precisely
the music to which Bennett has set the poem. The last of the
three songs, ‘Tango’, has a wonderful twist to it. In the final
stanza we realise that the preceding four verses have been the
memories of one half of an elderly couple, recalling the days
of youth when they were young and carefree, revelling in the
pleasures of dancing. It’s a most touching end to this mini-cycle.
Sarah Connolly gives a beguiling performance of Bennett’s songs.
She’s equally successful in the Britten items – including three
of his folksong arrangements – and the pieces by Michael Head,
Ireland and Warlock are all well chosen and performed with great
intelligence and musicianship by both artists.
This is an outstanding recital of English song. Dip into any
selection of the contents and you’ll be richly entertained but
listening from the very start of the programme right through
to the end is an especially delightful experience.
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
O Waly, Waly (1945-6) [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 (1900-1975)
Foxgloves (1932) [3:39]
Peter WARLOCK (1894-1930)
The First Mercy (1927) [2:51]
Cotswold Love (1938) [2:39]
Sir Richard Rodney BENNETT (b.
A History of the Thé Dansant (1994) [10:33]