Sarah Connolly is hugely popular, and her brilliance and intuitive understanding of the material she presented was, as always to the fore. In Debussy’s Chansons de Bilitis she allowed the text to dominate – in particular, her luscious enjoyment of the words ‘… comme le miel …’ in La flûte de Pan and the way she held the note and allowed it to blossom on ‘… sur ma poitrine …’ in La chevelure – such that every erotic drop was wrung out of the songs.
There were less febrile performances too, that included the glowing and triumphant close to Duparc’s L’Invitation au voyage, and some delicate work with the flute (sensitively played by Adam Walker) in the two contrasting settings by Saint-Saëns and Caplet of Victor Hugo’s poem Une flûte invisible. The former simple song with alternating passages for voice and flute, was high in Connolly’s register, but she took it all in her stride, producing some clear top notes; the latter was more impressionistic, and allowed a lovely blend between the two solo lines. The pair also tackled the mercurial nature of Ravel’s La flûte enchantée with a sense of style, describing perfectly, between them, a servant-girl’s fantasies on a listlessly hot afternoon.
James Newby is a relative newcomer to the recital platform, but he comes with an impressive pedigree, having, last year, won the Trinity Gold Medal, and spent a summer as a Jerwood Young Artist at Glyndebourne, as well as currently being a BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist.He has a tremendously versatile voice that’s capable of astonishing power (as demonstrated with the magnificent blast of ‘hélas’ in Duparc’s La vague et la cloche), an edgy warm solidity (that was to the fore in Debussy’s La Mer est plus belle) and an intense mezza voce quality that he brought to Ravel’s Ronsard à son âme and Duparc’s Extase (where the hint of breathiness on ‘…mort parfumée …’ was completely delicious). There’s a good sense of comic timing there too, and this was apparent in two of Ravel’s Histoires naturelles: Le paon, where Newby (ably assisted by Joseph Middleton’s baroque-French-overture playing) gave us the overweening grandeur of the peacock, interspersed with his bathetic inability to find a mate; the interfering non-stop scolding of the guinea-fowl in La pintade was perfectly conjured through Newby’s constant changes of vocal tone and Middleton’s splendid pecking accompaniment. Newby has a winning platform manner and a glorious voice that will take him far; if there is any critique at all is that he should perhaps work on the sustained quiet high notes, as these were occasionally prone to a little cracking.
Middleton’s piano playing throughout was first-rate, summoning mood exactly – the rolling arpeggios of La Mer est plus belle, some dainty descending ripples for falling snow in Le son du cor, the slow placement of lush chords in Extase and the gentle insouciance of a solo right hand in Ronsard à son âme (supposedly scored this way to allow Ravel to smoke a cigarette whilst playing).
Sadly, the only piece of the evening that didn’t work was Chabrier’s setting of the evening’s title-song, scored for piano, mezzo-soprano and bassoon. All three (Connolly, Middleton and the bassoonist Amy Harman, drafted in for this one number) performed well, and while the piano and any one of the others would have worked, the combination of the three simply didn’t gel; the bassoon, despite its languorous counter-melody, imparted far too much comedy to this sad little almost-waltz.