It’s tempting to describe this lunchtime concert as “Dame Sarah Connolly and Friends”, though it might be more accurate (if less eye-catching) to say “Maria Włoszczowska and Friends” since the violinist alone featured in every piece. The leader of the Royal Northern Sinfonia was joined by their Principal Conductor Dinis Sousa as pianist in a pair of characterful miniatures by Lili Boulanger that were the sorbet between two masterworks of the Belle Époque, both given in arrangements for chamber forces.

Dame Sarah Connolly
© Christopher Pledger

Debussy’s Chansons de Bilitis are enigmatic at the best of times. The trio of texts by Pierre Louÿs may hint at more than they depict, but the poet’s sensuous evocation of earthly delights is rarely allowed by Debussy to ripple with erotic fervour. When Maurice Delage later orchestrated the composer's settings he added a degree of sensuality, whereas Jake Heggie’s version for mezzo-soprano and string quartet is, if anything, even more austere than the original version for piano accompaniment. There’s no flute to add its sinewy texture in La Flûte de Pan while La Chevelure, the most explicitly sexy of the three texts, sounds pared back rather than filled out.

Connolly and the RNS section leaders delivered a poised, controlled performance of these settings that rendered precisely the mood that Debussy injected into them. The great mezzo’s exquisite reading was self-effacing in the best of ways, for she added nothing to disturb their beauty or atmosphere. It was Debussy at its purest.

Chausson’s Poème de l’amour et de la mer, two sumptuous settings of verses by Maurice Bouchor linked by a brief Interlude, is available either in the opulence of full orchestral widescreen or else with salon piano accompaniment. The first of these is costly to mount, the second low on coloration, so this reduction for chamber forces by Franck Villard is a welcome addition to the catalogue. Since its first performances a decade or so back it seems to have caught on, and deservedly so. Not only is Villard's work immensely persuasive, it also enables the likes of Connolly to give more performances of this great work than might otherwise be possible.

Like Debussy’s songs, there is an eroticism about the Poème that’s lightly worn yet unmistakable, especially in the opening song, La Fleur des eaux, a poem of the senses that’s redolent of perfume, blossom and transfigured youth. The performance by both singer and musicians (especially the radiant violin of Włoszczowska) had lustre and beauty.

Few other anglophone singers can match Connolly’s impeccable French pronunciation, whether in her command of vowels (“Ma mère ne croira jamais que je suis restée si longtemps à chercher ma ceinture perdue” would test any non-native) or consonants (“À travers la mer d’améthyste / Doucement glisse le bateau” – just as tricky), and her ease with the language is a treasurable weapon in her vocal armoury. That, though, is less a marvel than the voice itself which, on this showing, is as vivid and expressive as ever. A joy.

*****