English Song in All its Richness

From John McCormack, Kathleen Ferrier, and Dame Janet Baker through today's Bryn Terfel, Alice Coote, and Roderick Williams, some of our greatest English and Irish singers have become indelibly associated with the art of English song. To that exalted list we must now add mezzo-soprano Dame Sarah Connolly, whose recent recording of 120 years of English song from the Royal College of Music, Come to Me in My Dreams (Chandos 10944), with the superb pianist Joseph Middleton, is so deeply felt and gorgeously voiced that it earns a 5-star recommendation.

The history of English song extends back to the lute songs of Purcell and Dowland through traditional folk songs and forward to Britten, Venables, Tippett, and Turnage. While some songs are terminally depressive and others hopelessly sentimental and soppy—the "hopeless" adjective applies equally to people like myself who are suckers for tasteful renditions of sentimental songs that, when performed by lesser artists, can easily devolve into high camp—even the simplest of the lot can come across as high art in the throat and heart of the right singer. Although bushels can be rightfully mocked as by-products of an idle rich upper white class that, dressed to the hilt, gathered in the parlor 'round the piano to sing sentimentally while sipping refreshments dispensed by servants appropriated from the Empire's many colonies, others are extraordinarily intimate and deeply moving.

Turning mush into art is where Connolly excels. In early 20th century songs by Muriel Herbert, John Ireland, Thomas Frederick Dunhill, Herbert Howells, Frank Bridge, Arthur Somervell, Gustav Holst, Cecil Armstrong Gibb, E.J. Moeran, Ivor Gurney, Rebecca Clarke, and a number of Sirs—Arthur Somervell, Charles Hubert Hastings Parry, Charles Villiers Stanford—and later contributions by Benjamin Britten and Sir Michael Tippett, plus premiere recordings of Britten (!) and Mark-Anthony Turnage—Connolly shares her fine-honed sensibility through a voice so rich and full, so immaculately produced and impeccably controlled, and so gorgeous, that each number becomes a precious moment in time.

True, Connolly, who is in her mid 50s, can occasionally sound a bit grand and stately. As much as her control of dynamics and tempo reflects a masterly understanding of the idiom—one that Middleton shares equally—she does not summon forth the slender pianissimo that makes the interpretations of Ferrier and Baker so breathtaking. Nor does she seem a direct channel for lightness and humor—not that Baker was either, for that matter. But when she gets it right, as she does in most of the songs in this 77-minute collection, she creates one "thank you [Lord/Goddess/Buddha/Jesus/Krishna . . .]" moment after another.

Auditioned in 24/96 WAV format, Connolly's artistry, beautifully captured in an airy and resonant acoustic, is a thing of wonder. She starts out as old-fashioned as it gets, with Herbert's "The Lost Nightingale," and also includes three sentimental numbers by Gurney—"All Night under the Moon" is absolutely gorgeous—before taking us up to the present day. Of special importance are the three recording premieres—two songs by Benjamin Britten, recently edited by Colin Matthews, that the composer chose not include in the five-song A Charm of Lullabies (1947) nor publish separately, and a new song, "Farewell" (2016), that Turnage wrote for Connolly. To hear Britten's songs in the company of three by his teacher, Bridge, is especially enlightening.

At the end of my enraptured listening session, I performed recording comparisons of two of the songs on this collection with older recordings by Kathleen Ferrier and Dame Janet Baker.

Vocal aficionados will not be surprised to learn that on Stanford's "A Soft Day" (1913), Ferrier and Frederick Stone's simpler yet holier live broadcast version, recorded toward the end of Ferrier's life when knowledge of her potential death from breast cancer added extra poignancy to her performances, wins out over Connolly's slightly regal performance. Ferrier's dew-dropped voice is ideal for Stafford's repeated line, ". . . the rain drips, drips, drips, drips from the leaves." Her first drips, even through mild tape flutter, are unforgettable, and the extremely soft repeat even more so.

Similarly, Baker's slight sweet soft tones amaze at the end of Gurney's "The Fields are Full" (1920).

Here again, simplicity wins out over propriety. But gloriously mature voiced propriety is exactly what most of these songs call for. Those who resonate with this repertoire know exactly what to do next.

volvic's picture

Whether she's singing ol' English Songs or Das Lied von der Erde with Walter, her voice and expression are tops in my books. Thanks for the links, making me reach for Ferrier recordings tonight.