Monday’s lunchtime Prom – featuring Dame Sarah Connolly and her regular accompanist Joseph Middleton – explored the world of lullabies, dreams and insomnia in a largely British programme (discounting the première of the Australian Lisa Illean’s Sleeplessness … Sails) that had its genesis in the performers’ ‘The Lullaby Project’ and in their recently released album of some of the material.
To mark the 100th anniversary of The Great War, the first half of the programme featured songs by Stanford, Parry, Gurney, Vaughan Williams, Somervell, Howells and Bridge, all of which were sensitively delivered. Middleton is a master of his instrument, and provides the kind of accompaniment that all singers dream of: supportive yet never overwhelming, colouring in the soloist’s bolder outline. The lightest of rocking lullabies underscored Parry’s Weep no more, sad fountains to be echoed (after a wistful, meandering introduction) in Vaughan Williams’ Love-Sight’. The soft, inexorable pulse accompanying Gurney’s Thou didst delight my eyes contrasted well with the complex chromatic harmonies in Bridge’s Come to me in my dreams.
Connolly is one of the great mezzos of our time, and she did not disappoint in this recital, managing to wring every nuance out of the pastoral texts: the delayed ‘s’ on ‘drip…s’ in Stanford’s A soft day; the tolling of the unison recitative at the beginning of Somervell’s Into my heart an air that kills, and its bloom into extravagant melody in the second stanza; her intuitive reading throughout of the composers’ way of subverting the metre of the poems.
The second half featured more contemporary music: some Holst, Britten and the two brand new works by Illean and Turnage. Britten’s five-song A Charm of Lullabies was augmented by two songs that the composer had left out of the original cycle, and which, surprisingly, received their world premières: A Sweet Lullaby and Somnus, the humble god. The former gave us more rocking accompaniment to Britten’s usual angular tunes, the latter delivered a pastiche of a pastoral melody supported by a moving bass. Although they (and the rest of the cycle) were beautifully performed, it was understandable why these two had been omitted from the final cycle; their slow tempo (comparable with A cradle song and The nurse’s song) would have tipped the balance away from the whimsy of the tarantella-influenced A Charm and the embarrassingly twee The Highland Balou.
Lisa Illean’s Sleeplessness … Sails set up – through the random piano arpeggios and the slow, almost haphazard placing of vocal notes – a fever dream in which (as Osip Mandelstam’s poem has it) the ships of the Troy-bound Greeks become cranes. A solid bass and high right-hand chords announced ‘the divine spray on the heads of kings’, and Homer fell silent after an animato cascade of irregular arpeggios. The promised ‘heavy growl’, though wasn’t exactly thunderous, and although the song portrayed the odd other-worldly moment, it left nothing much in the memory.
Mark Anthony Turnage’s première Farewell (a setting of words by Stevie Smith) offered a more structured finale. Beginning with a sad little carousel waltz, it took Sarah Connolly to the ringing top of her range with some loud, busy accompaniment in the middle of the song. The almost-unaccompanied final verse led to the lightest of floated notes on ‘as a sweet bell’.