Put aside intellectualism for a moment—when you go to a vocal recital, you hope first and foremost to fall in love with an artist. Philadelphia Chamber Music Society (PCMS) offered the opportunity to swoon for Dame Sarah Connolly when it presented her only North American engagement this season on March 22.
The English mezzo-soprano cancelled a series of performances at the Metropolitan Opera, as Waltraute in Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, and I feared that would also mean scrapping her Philly solo debut. (She appeared with Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra in Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in 2014). But there she was as scheduled, on the stage of the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater, and in ravishing voice.
Simplicity and passion
Connolly and her adroit accompanist, Julius Drake, presented a program for adults. She bothered to learn her material ahead of time. (Not a music stand in sight—what a novel idea!) And she didn’t feel the need to soliloquize between selections, as some contemporary musicians have taken to doing, in a manner that can turn an evening of song into a pedantic lecture. The music, and her interpretation of it, spoke for itself.
Often, it spoke volumes. Some of her programming was overly familiar, like an opening suite of five art songs by Brahms that nearly every singer worth their salt has tried. Connolly managed to make them sound new and exciting. In particular, her steady, vibrato-less delivery of “Da unten im Tale” (Down in the Valley There) underscored the simplicity of the piece, which is essentially a classic folk ballad. On the opposite end of the spectrum, she unleashed torrents of molten sound in “Von ewiger Liebe” (From Eternal Love), a paean to undying passion.
Not elevator music
Debussy’s Trois Chanson de Bilitis is similarly well-known—and, to my ears at least, usually a snore. Connolly and Drake—whose keyboard technique often resembles that of an Expressionist painter, seemingly disjointed but somehow forming a beautiful picture through its fragmentary nature—enlivened the music through an elegant yet impassioned interpretation. No one will mistake these songs for Schubert any time soon, but here, they sounded like something more than the classical equivalent of elevator music.
Roussel, Wolf, and more
Fewer music lovers may be familiar with the songs of Albert Roussel, which Connolly gave a place of prominence at the top of her recital’s second half. She showed real depth of feeling and sparkling French diction in “Le Bachelier de Salamanque” (The Bachelor of Salamanca), a long narrative that could have easily turned dull. In the gorgeous “Le jardin mouillé” (The Wet Garden), Drake’s pinprick piano accompaniment truly sounded like dewdrops clinging to the petals of a budding flower.
The British pair also dispatched Wolf (a hodgepodge of selections, including “Auch kleine Dinge” from the Italienisches Liederbuch) and Zemlinsky (the Six Maeterlinck Songs) with stylish acumen. They waited for the encores to turn to their native land. The English composer Herbert Howells (1892-1983) is perhaps not as well-known on these shores as Ralph Vaughn Williams or Benjamin Britten, but Connolly made a strong case for him with his stirring setting of Walter de la Mare’s poem “King David.”
A treat in Philadelphia
Connolly seemed less comfortable in the patter-laden, cabaret-like “In Paris with You,” by contemporary composer Dominic Muldowney, which also tended to fall awkwardly between her register breaks. But it was worthwhile to hear as an introduction to Muldowney’s style. As he did throughout the evening, Drake played with wonderful clarity.
PCMS artistic director Miles Cohen spoke before the concert of his years-long desire to bring Connolly to Philadelphia. A small but ardent audience met her, and those who did come won’t soon forget her artistry. Let’s hope she comes back soon.
What, When, Where
Dame Sarah Connolly, mezzo-soprano. Julius Drake, piano. Selections by Brahms, Wolf, Roussel, Debussy, and Zemlinsky. Philadelphia Chamber Music Society. March 22, 2019, at the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater, 300 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia. (215) 569-8080 or pcmsconcerts.org.
PCMS performs at a variety of venues. If you have specific questions about accessibility, you can email [email protected] or call (215) 569-8080.