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Come to Me in My Dreams - 120 years of song from the Royal College of Music
Dame Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano)
Joseph Middleton (piano)
rec. 2017/18, Potton Hall, Dunwich, UK
Texts included CHANDOS CHAN10944 [77:18]
What an excellent idea for a programme! London’s Royal College of Music opened its doors 125 years ago in 1883. Dame Sarah Connolly is herself an alumna of the RCM and in her programme all the composers represented here either taught or studied – in some cases both - at the College.
Fittingly, the programme includes one song each by Parry and Stanford. Both composers were members of the College teaching staff from the outset, retaining their posts until their respective deaths. In addition to his teaching responsibilities, Parry was the greatly admired Director of the College from 1894 onwards. Both composers are here represented by fine songs: Parry by Weep you no more, sad fountains, one of his English Lyrics, and Stanford by his setting of the Irish poem A soft day. Parry’s lovely, tranquil song displays an affinity with Lieder and is none the worse for that while A soft day is memorable for its simplicity of utterance. Dame Sarah does both of them beautifully.
Both Parry and Stanford were deeply affected by the toll that the Great War took on composers who had studied at the RCM. E J Moeran suffered a serious head wound on active service and was invalided out of the war. Eventually he was able to return to study at the College. His Twilight is a lovely song and I particularly admired the wonderful way in which Connolly delivers the hushed last line. Like Moeran, Ivor Gurney came back from France but he returned with terrible mental scars. At least he was able to continue to compose – and to write poetry – for some years after. Although Richard Stokes is right to say in his notes that many of Gurney’s songs are flawed, I believe that he displays at his best a melancholy melodic inspiration and a sensitivity to words that place him in the front rank of English song composers. This programme contains three choice examples of his art. Thou didst delight my eyes, a very fine song, is most expressively sung here. No less memorable, both as a song and as a performance is All night under the moon.
As a boy, Gurney studied at Gloucester Cathedral under Sir Herbert Brewer, as did Herbert Howells. (Ivor Novello was their fellow pupil.) Both then went on to the RCM; In Howells’ case, he not only studied there but also taught there between 1920 and 1979. His Goddess of Night, rightly described by Richard Stokes as an “exquisite nocturne” is a very welcome addition to the programme and it receives a super performance.
I’m glad to find songs by Frank Bridge included here. Journey’s End is a dialogue between a mother and her sick – probably dying – child. Bridge’s setting is searching and atmospheric. It’s interesting, too, to hear the response to the same text by Gustav Holst, not a composer whose name I usually associate with songs. Like Bridge, Holst conveys the pathos of the poem. Bridge’s Where she lies asleep is very different to his setting of Journey’s End; it’s gentle and romantic. Come to me in my dreams, which gives this album its title, is both romantic and emotional.
Bridge’s most celebrated pupil was Benjamin Britten. Sarah Connolly has chosen to sing his A Charm of Lullabies, a cycle of five songs. The lullabies that Britten selected are very different in nature and therefore demand very different musical responses. The first two, ‘A Cradle Song’ and ‘The Highland balou’ both fit the traditional lullaby model. However, the fourth song ‘A Charm’ might almost be described as an anti-lullaby. Here, the child is being commanded to sleep and terrible consequences are ordained if the command is not obeyed. You feel that even if the child in question were to drop off, nightmares might well result. The concluding ‘The Nurse’s Song’ is much more like a lullaby but even here there are dark undertones in the words which Britten picks up in his music. Britten devotees will surely be drawn by the other two songs, A Sweet Lullaby, and Somnus, the humble god. These were songs which Britten composed intending them for A Charm of Lullabies but which he evidently laid aside; apparently, this happened with several other song cycles that he composed. Sarah Connolly and Joseph Middleton successfully sought permission from the Britten Estate to include these songs in this collection and the manuscripts were edited by Colin Matthews. Both are well worth hearing. I find A Sweet Lullaby particularly attractive and I like the way the song expands so that the third and final verse of the poem is set to impassioned music. Apparently these two songs will be added as an appendix to the next reprint of A Charm of Lullabies. I think it was sensible to separate them from the rest of the cycle on the disc; that emphasises that there’s no intention to suggest that they form part of A Charm of Lullabies
There are other rarities and discoveries here. Muriel Herbert’s The Lost Nightingale is a very good song, which Dame Sarah sings with fine feeling. I was astonished to read that this song was unpublished until 2017. Thomas Dunhill’s The Cloths of Heaven is a wonderful composition, rightly established in the pantheon of English song. Here it’s performed with great sensitivity. Far less well-known – certainly as far as I was concerned - is the setting of the same Yeats text by Rebecca Clarke. It’s a good song which deserves to be heard more often even if it doesn’t have quite the same magical poise as Dunhill’s song. An interesting footnote is that Clarke dedicated the song to the tenor Gervase Elwes who, in 1912, gave the first performance of Dunhill’s cycle The Wind among the Reeds, from which The Cloths of Heaven is taken.
Towards the end of the programme we hear Tippett’s three Songs for Ariel. These were composed for a production of The Tempest in 1962 and because it was intended that they should be sung by actors rather than by singers Tippett restricted the vocal range somewhat, though in so doing it doesn’t seem to me that he impaired the musical flow. I especially like the middle song, ‘Full fathom five’. Here Tippett’s slow music imparts a sense of solemn mystery; it’s a lovely song. The programme ends with the first recording of a very recent song by Mark-Anthony Turnage, written specifically for Sarah Connolly. Farewell is a setting of a poem by Stevie Smith. Disappointingly, because agreement couldn’t be reached between the publishers of Smith’s poem and Turnage’s own publishers, the text hasn’t been included in the booklet. In a booklet note Sarah Connolly comments that Turnage was aware that Tippett’s songs would form part of her programme and she thinks he was inspired to echo the “ghostly chimes” inherent in Tippett’s response to ‘Full fathom five’.
This is a super programme which has been discerningly chosen. It represents a splendid way of celebrating the 125th anniversary of one of the UK’s premier conservatoires. Dame Sarah Connolly is on top form throughout, singing with wonderfully lustrous tone and a great understanding of the texts she’s putting across. At every turn the admirable pianism of Joseph Middleton shows why he’s so highly regarded among accompanists these days.
The performers have been expertly recorded at Potton Hall and the documentation is up to the usual very high standards of this label. Lovers of English song should hasten to hear this fine recital.
Contents Muriel Herbert (1897-1984) The Lost Nightingale (1938-39) John Ireland (1879-1962) Earth’s Call (1918); The Three Ravens (1920) Thomas Frederick Dunhill (1877-1946) The Cloths of Heaven (before 1912) Herbert Howells (1892-1983) Goddess of Night (1920) Frank Bridge (1879-1941) Journey’s End (1925) Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) A Charm of Lullabies, Op. 41(1947) Sir Arthur Somervell (1863-1937) Into my heart an air that kills (1904) Gustav Holst (1874-1934) Journey’s End (1929) Frank Bridge Where she lies asleep (1914); Come to me in my dreams (1906) Benjamin Britten A Sweet Lullaby (1947)*; Somnus, the humble god (1947)* Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (1848-1918) Weep you no more, sad fountains (1895-96) Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) A soft day (1913) Cecil Armstrong Gibbs (1889-1960) Sailing Homeward (1934) E.J. Moeran (1894-1950) Twilight (1920, rev. 1936) Ivor Gurney (1890-1937) Thou didst delight my eyes (1921); The fields are full (1920); All night under the moon (1918) Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979) The Cloths of Heaven (c. 1912) Sir Michael Tippett (1905-1998) Songs for Ariel (1962) Mark-Anthony Turnage (b. 1960) Farewell (2016)*