Above: mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly
Sunday April 12, 2015 - The final concert in our Great Performers at Lincoln Center subscription series, this recital at Alice Tully Hall by the English mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly was as fine an evening of song as I have ever experienced; both the singer and her songs stood proudly in my memory-pantheon of great vocal recitals which reaches back to the 1960s when I met Dame Janet Baker and which encompasses such paragons of the lied as Christa Ludwig, Elisabeth Söderström, Jessye Norman, Wolfgang Holzmair, and a host of others.
Ms. Connolly, tall and goddess-like in her silvery gown, strode onto the Tully stage to a very warm round of applause and commenced on a program that displayed a voice of enviable evenness and clarity, warm and true in tone and ideal in expressiveness. A mistress of dynamic nuance and blessed with wondrous breath control, Ms. Connolly's singing all evening was a balm to the ear and to the spirit.
The pianist Joseph Middleton (above) was at the Steinway and was an ideal partner for Ms. Connolly with his sensitive, elegant playing. His mastery of piano/pianissimo gradations provided so many passages of quiet rapture throughout the program.
Schubert’s Ellens Gesang were inspired by Ellen Douglas, the heroine of Sir Walter Scott's Lady of the Lake, culminating with the composer's beloved “Ave Maria”. We have just had Rossini's operatic treatment of Ellen (Elena's) story - La Donna del Lago - at the Met. In the first two songs tonight, which have the structural scope of operatic scenas, Ms. Connolly combined phrase after phrase of cordial lyricism with a sense of dramatic urgency. In the "Ave Maria", she made a thrice-familiar melody seem fresh and meaningful; Mr. Middleton's playing had clarity of detail, and everything meshed marvelously for the two musicians.
Gustav Mahler’s poetic Rückert-Lieder have deep associations for me: they were favorite works of my late friend, the Japanese contralto Makiko Narumi; whenever I hear these melodies, I am drawn back to the happiness of our brief and lovely friendship.
Sarah Connolly and Joseph Middleton cast a spell with these Mahler songs which range in theme from the irony of love ("Liebst du um Schönheit") to darkling nocturnal musings ("Um mitternacht") to the profound solitude of "Ich bin der welt abhanden gekommen". A whole catalog of descriptive superlatives won't do justice to this evening's performance in which singer and pianist found the poetic heartland of the songs and transported us there with the immersive beauty of their entwined voices.
In a selection of six songs from Aaron Copland’s 12 Poems of Emily Dickinson, Ms. Connolly's voice was so soothing as she moved with coloristic acuity from the top to the bottom of her range. Her passionate voicing of "I've Heard An Organ Talk Sometimes" was particularly striking, as was her lovely alternating of the urgent and the pensive in "Going to Heaven". In the final "The Chariot", she and her pianist again found a perfect rapport, and throughout this set (and the entire evening, in fact) there were passages of entrancing delicacy from the keyboard. At the end of "The Chariot" Ms. Connolly sustained the final note in a remarkable pianissimo that hung on the air: a bit of heaven here on Earth.
Drawn at last to her English heritage, Ms. Connolly chose Edward Elgar's Sea Pictures (1899) to conclude the evening. These evocative songs suited her to perfection as she displayed the remarkable qualities of her voice - a voice "like a banner flying" - in a blending of poetry and power which Mr. Middleton's playing so limpidly underscored.
Handel's ultra-familiar "Ombra mai fu" was the first encore, sung with such nobility of expression as to make it fresh. Then a rarity: Herbert Howells' "King David" with which singer and pianist entranced us yet again.
Most musical performances have peaks and valleys; this evening, Ms. Connolly and Mr. Middleton set out on a plateau high in the musical stratosphere and lingered there til the final note, transporting us out of a troubled world and fortifying us with the generosity and sincerity of their artistry. A great night of song.
- Schubert: Ellens Gesang I–III
- Mahler: Rückert-Lieder
- Copland: Selections from 12 Poems of Emily Dickinson
- Elgar: Sea Pictures