The perfect invitation to daydream on another hot, sultry afternoon – lullabies and dreams in English song from Dame Sarah Connolly and pianist Joseph Middleton. Of the ten composers represented, technically Stanford was Irish, and Lisa Illean is Australian, but all were/are either teachers or students of the Royal College of Music. Spanning over 120 years, the programme, including many relatively unfamiliar songs, is testament to that institution, but also the strong English song tradition, still very much alive in the 21st century.  

Dame Sarah Connolly
© Jan Capinski

The majority of the 18 songs are also included on Connolly and Middleton’s recording Come to Me in My Dreams. The title comes from Bridge’s beautifully rhapsodic setting of Matthew Arnold’s text, with its bluesy piano opening and passionate, expressive swells. As throughout the recital, Connolly’s diction and articulation was so faultless that the texts were rarely needed. And despite the theme of dream and sleep, both Connolly and Middleton held the audience’s interest, through the variety of settings, but more through a strong sense of communication and commitment to the texts. From the tender sadness and dislocated syncopation of voice and piano in Gurney’s Thou didst delight my eyes, to the tolling bells and beating heart of the repeated note in Somervell’s Into my heart an air that kills, Connolly always delivered the text with intensity and passion, without ever becoming mannered in delivery. Her soft, honeyed tone and delicate articulation of “drips, drips, drips” in Stanford’s A soft day had an added sense of desire in the current heat. Space here does not allow a full mention of all the songs, but it is important to say that, despite Connolly’s phenomenal expressiveness and control, Middleton’s playing also deserved equal credit. His rippling watery accompaniment to Parry’s Weep you no more, sad fountains, and the beautifully placed delicacy of the opening to Vaughan Williams’ Love-Sight are just two small examples of the subtlety of his touch throughout.

The meat of the second half of the programme was given over to Britten. The striking, more familiar set, A Charm of Lullabies was accompanied by, surprise, surprise, two world premières to compete with the two contemporary premières on offer at the end of the recital. Connolly came across A Sweet Lullaby and Somnus, the humble god, two songs written for the set, but rejected by Britten, in the Britten-Pears Library, and Colin Matthews prepared them for performance. A Sweet Lullaby combines a simple lilting rhythm with an undercurrent of unsettling harmonies, and the urgency of the darker undertone increases, such that the final wail leaves the “lullaby” far from calm. Somnus, the humble god is also dark, with its rumbling, rocking piano part and a final stanza likening sleep to death. Once again, Connolly and Middleton delivered these gems with total conviction, and as a result, convinced us that they are worthy to stand alongside the established set. The full group brought us perhaps the first faster paced setting of the day, in Sephestia’s Lullaby, and here Connolly’s articulation was crucial to communicating the detail of the text, contrasting the repeated plea of “weep not” with the keening and wailing of Britten’s setting. One sensed weary personal experience in the desperate pleas of “Quiet! Sleep!” in A Charm, although hopefully not direct experience of the dark and disturbing threats here.

The fourth new work from a woman for this year’s BBC Proms at… Cadogan Hall came from Lisa Illean, and for her specially commissioned piece for Connolly and Middleton, she set a text by the Russian Jewish poet Osip Mandelstam. Evoking insomnia, Mandelstam overlays an image of static ships with that of a flock of cranes in flight. Finally, sleep comes with a rush of the sea. The piece begins with a sense of suspended motion, a jumping chromatic piano part with no discernible harmonic motion beneath a long drawn-out vocal line. The piano part is challenging, and Middleton articulated the leaps with precision, whilst Connolly’s even tone rested above. Illean increases the intensity and pace as the sea builds towards the end, although the arrival of the rolling waves was not quite the growl that ends Mandelstam’s text.

Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Farewell, also written for Connolly, concluded the programme. Here, Turnage sets Stevie Smith, and he exploits Connolly’s full range to convey the passion and directness of Smith’s text. Connolly sounded truly distraught, almost crazed, delivering the line “I loved you best”, contrasted with a beautifully relaxed, bell-like tone in the final “ding dongs”, against the high tinkling piano. 

Connolly, in her Proms recital debut, and Middleton delivered their programme with assurance and conviction throughout, sending a satisfied audience back into the heat of the afternoon, perhaps dreaming of “drips, drips, drips” of rain.