Sarah Connolly and Malcolm Martineau: "My True Love Hath My Heart"
Music by Britten, Howells, Ireland, Gurney, Bennett. English Texts. Chandos 10691
It would be impossible to disentangle the contributions of singer and pianist in this recital of mid-twentieth-century British song. Mezzo Sarah Connolly and pianist Malcolm Martineau are always striving for the same ends. Often, as in the John Ireland song "Tryst," he sets her up so perfectly with the introduction that the entrance of the voice seems both utterly natural and a surprise. Both artists know just where a big song such as the Herbert Howells "King David" needs to have a single sustained emotional release. Both are ever-attentive, with their different means, to the extension of a phrase to its very end. And neither apologizes for the occasional weak material. If a song such as Ivor Gurney's "By a Bierside" climaxes in nothing but a full-out, organ-like C-Major arpeggio, it's best just to go for it. Connolly understands that her part of Peter Warlock's "The First Mercy" may be strophic, but there's no need for the standard interpretation of "do something new on each verse," because Martineau's piano part takes care of the progression of the song. Gurney's "Sleep" gets a very distinctive interpretation, pure like a Purcell song except for unexpected glimpses of a creepy underside.
Thus it becomes clear which songs are better compositions and which are feebler; if these two artists can't make a case, there is no case to be made. "King David" is a major song, and the next Howells number, "Come Sing and Dance," is a beautifully pensive and occasionally febrile setting of an ostensibly joyous text. But Connolly and Martineau can't disguise the way John Ireland's "Her Song" succumbs to the sing-songy quality of the Thomas Hardy text. Two songs by Michael Head will not win many fans on this side of the Atlantic, but the Howells song "Lost Love" is a highly individual response to Clifford Bax's poem that nonetheless honors it. The ultimately scattershot effect of the programming (not the performances) might have been lessened had we been offered more than a single song-cycle. But the one we get, Richard Rodney Bennett's A History of the Thé Dansant, is appealing. Martineau is alternately fleet of finger and languid, and Connolly, with her chocolate-pudding mezzo sometimes on the verge of alto coloring, completely understands the underlying idea that seduction is a highly structured game, even late in life.
WILLIAM R. BRAUN