Many famous music festivals are the result of the determination and generosity of particular individuals. Glyndebourne would have been inconceivable without John Christie’s deep pockets and his devotion to Audrey Mildmay. Bayreuth would never have happened without the seemingly limitless largesse of Wagner’s besotted patron Ludwig II. In the case of the Incontri in Terra di Siena Festival, it is the spirit of acclaimed writer and neo-Renaissance figure extraordinaire Dame Iris Origo (née Cutting) which permeates the music around her splendid villa La Foce in the gentle Tuscan hills.

Dame Sarah Connolly © Jan Capinski
Dame Sarah Connolly
© Jan Capinski

Admittedly the Festival did not begin until after Iris’ death, but it was certainly with her blessing that grandson Antonio Lysy started it in 1988. Lysy also happens to be a world-famous cellist. Originally the Festival was more of a family and friends affair, but the concept of concerts in the Elysian surrounds of a fabulous villa proved irresistible to the broader music loving-public. 

Given the American-Anglo-Irish background of the indomitable Iris, it is not surprising that despite being in the very heart of Bella Italia, ITS has a distinctly English feel about it. The spectacular formal gardens were designed by Englishman Cecil Pinsent. There was even a very smart UK-plated Aston Martin parked outside. Fittingly, it was English mezzo Dame Sarah Connolly who sang the closing concert.

Coming directly from a critically acclaimed performance as Gertrude in Brett Dean’s Hamlet, Connolly reaffirmed that she is much more than an adept Handelian or Baroque buff. A wide-ranging programme from French chansons to Mahler and Richard Rodney Bennett revealed the remarkable extent of this mezzo’s formidable range and repertoire.

Five songs by Poulenc entitled Banalitiés opened the programme, which were anything but banal. Connolly’s French diction would probably not have gained dix points from the Académie Française, but there was a lot to savour. The mezzo gave a light drollness to Voyage à Paris with an almost Piafian poutiness of phrasing. Fine breath control and exemplary pianissimo made Sanglots a beguiling narrative.

The original programme promised Berlioz's Les Nuits d’été which would have been particularly appropriate to the balmy, albeit slightly bug-infused Tuscan evening setting. However, Connolly substituted Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder which showed more ease in the German language. Rather than diction however, it was Connolly’s intelligent musicianship which made specific word colourings particularly effective. A resonant chest voice on “Ich bin gestorben” was rich and plummy whilst there was wonderful lightness on “Der Liebe linden Duft”. Admirable breath control on long phrases such as “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” wove a fine seamless musical line. Some pertinent pianissimi in Um Mitternacht were attentive to the dynamic markings, even if the pp on “wie ertappt” in Blick mir nicht in die Lieder was not. Regrettably a non-chronological performance order caused many listeners to flip noisily through their translation sheets mid-music in search of the right song.

Regular La Foce accompanist Julius Drake accredited himself well despite the difficulty of replicating Mahler’s rich orchestral colourings in the somewhat sparse piano transcription. Drake’s playing was much more effective in the second half, notably a feather light touch in Debussy’s Trois Chansons de Bilitis, especially in Le tombeau des Naïades. There was powerful dramatic articulation on “la bouche sur la bouche” in La chevelure and a smoky mystique leading to a burnished climax on “Riaient les naïades” in Le tombeau des Naïades. This is a mezzo with a seriously impressive upper register who although occasionally slightly mannered, is generally a convincing performer.

Connolly’s natural dramatic flair was even more evident in a following selection of English songs. There was real fire with rapid staccato diction in Britten’s A Charm which was also notable for Drake’s nimble accompaniment. The unaccompanied opening of The Nurses’ Song displayed accurate intonation with some delicious chest notes on the repeated “lullaby baby” although the fortissimo delivery of the same text in the fourth stanza would be unlikely to ensure neonate somnolence. In conclusion, some suitably louche portamenti and sexy sonorities characterized Richard Rodney Bennett’s vampish Slow Foxtrot and Tango, Drake excelling in the tricky piano accompaniment.

In deference to the empyrean Italian setting, Connolly sang a beautifully measured “Lascia ch'io pianga” as an encore which brought this stylish yet delightfully intimate festival to a memorable close.