The Opening Night of the Wigmore Hall’s season always has a hard task: it’s often in conflict with a notable Prom, it has to set the standard for the following year and to inspire concert goers to return for more of the same. Small wonder then that the management chose Sarah Connolly and Malcolm Martineau for this daunting assignment, since no one commands the stage quite so completely as the former (remember her matchless ‘Rule Britannia’ at the Proms?) and no pianist reminds one of the importance of the accompanist’s art with such assurance as the latter.
Their programme was a superbly chosen mixture of the familiar and the less well known, beginning with four Schumann songs which deserve to be more frequently performed – although it would be difficult to imagine them being more finely done than they were here. This little set of songs is predominantly sombre in character, with even the superficially slight ‘Märzveilchen’ ending on a note of foreboding, and the deceptively lilting piano warning of the young man’s impending potential heartbreak. So superficially modest a song, but sung and played with as much love as if it had been from Winterreise.
The other three songs in the group were grim evocations of the fragility of a mother’s hopes and dreams, of the fate of a soldier and of a ‘poor musician.’ ‘Muttertraum’ was gripping from first to last, the fervour of the mother’s love expressed with heartfelt passion in ‘Ein Engel muss er ihr scheinen’ (To her he must seem like an angel) and the horror of the Raven’s cry at ‘Dein Engel, dein Engel wird unser sein!’ (Your angel shall be our prey) spellbinding. ‘Der Soldat’ looks towards Mahler in its stark depiction of a soldier’s lot, with Martineau’s playing suggesting the horrible irony of the man’s fate and Connolly’s singing of lines such as ‘Dir schenke Gott die ewige Ruh!’ (May God grant you eternal peace!’) equally searing in intensity.
Mahler’s Rückert Lieder was the evening’s central work. ‘Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft’ was described by the composer as evoking “…the way one feels in the presence of a beloved being of whom one is completely sure without a single word needing to be spoken” and with Connolly’s warm, even, flowing legato line and Martineau’s infinitely delicate playing it was easy to imagine that sense of contentment. That exceptional legato was again in evidence in ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ but it was ‘Um Mitternacht’ which was the performance of the night, and one which it is hard to imagine being surpassed in this or any season. One did not miss an orchestra since the playing provided both the hesitancy and grandeur of the music, and the singing was an object lesson in the communication of Mahler’s fervour: the final stanza, with its impassioned avowal of trust at the line ‘In deine Hand gegeben / Herr über Tod und Leben (Into thy hand, Lord of life and death) was so superbly sung that it not only sent shivers down the spine but seemed just about to inspire an ovation – which would have been most unseemly for a song in the middle of a work, of course, but you could sense the audience itching to give one.
Berlioz’ Les nuits di été is one of those works which have inspired so many great performances that every singer who essays it is bound to be compared with someone else: in terms of Connolly’s style one could say that she leans more towards the coolness of Véronique Gens than the touching quality of Janet Baker, but her interpretation is so individual that it brings its own nuances to the work. This was most finely shown in ‘Le spectre de la rose’ where she superbly evoked the heady sweetness of ‘Et j’arrive du paradis,’ aided by Martineau’s anxiously flickering piano.
Debussy’s Chansons de Bilitis and Poulenc’s Banalités completed the programme, all sung and played with panache; the final song, ‘Sanglots’ was blessedly free of any over-indulgence yet gave full rein to Apollinaire’s despairing lines and Poulenc’s impassioned music. Two encores, by ‘Mrs Schumann’ and ‘Mrs Mahler’ respectively, formed a most satisfying conclusion to a superb season opener, with Alma Mahler’s ‘Bei dir ist es Traut’ reminding us again of the deep pleasure which even a simple song can bring when it is performed with such devotion.