It was a coup for Brighton Festival to present a concert with Sarah Connolly and pianist Joseph Middleton. Kate Tempest, the festival guest director, encourages audiences to approach performances “like an epic”. This is also true of performers and certainly Sarah Connolly. Standing in the centre of All Saint’s Church between two theatrically up-lit pillars – as soon as she began to sing, neither softly nor loudly, her artistry began to unfold before us.  She’s a performer who’s not afraid to reveal her emotive roots. A singer may sing a sad song with a sad face but that wouldn’t have much impact if the singer only presented a sad face – they would need to have a sad heart too. Connolly is a completely honest performer and consequently the impact of her performance was tremendous. Because of this she held the audience in her hand – if she’s laying herself open, the least the audience can do is concentrate. The packed church sat spellbound watching this epic performance unfold.

Sarah Connolly © Jan Capinski
Sarah Connolly
© Jan Capinski

Connolly chose German and French repertoire for the first half and French and English for the second. It was inspired to begin with Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -leben, with the opening perfectly projected note from Connolly’s extraordinary poise to the last line “Du meine Welt”, she told the story darkening her voice, yielding superb legato lines in flawless German. At times, she even wallowed in the music yet kept up the support and energy levels. This is a big sing and a taxing opener and by the fifth song the high notes seemed to lie in less obvious places – but by the sixth, with its Straussian phrasing, she recovered and resisted the temptation of the sweeping notes at the end opting instead to float them. Schumann wrote these songs when he was overwhelmed with love for Clara and just about to marry her and there’s an innocent charm about them. 

Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été followed and Connolly switched from German to French effortlessly, colouring the top of her voice whilst maintaining its lightness. In Le Spectre de la rose, Connolly allowed her voice to thin in ‘girlish dreams’. In contrast Sur les lagunes mourns the dead and Connolly matched this with a low almost guttural sound which bloomed into anguished beauty in her upper register. These songs lie perfectly for Connolly and in Absence she sang with velveteen roundness. Her poise never wavered, but there was also an irresistible vulnerability. I’d love to hear her sing Berlioz's Béatrice.

Connolly bought life and vitality to Poulenc’s Banalites and six of the twelve songs from Aaron Copland’s Poems by Emily Dickinson. Richard Rodney Bennett A History of The Dansant found Connolly rising to Foxtrot with a sense of mischief and Slow Foxtrot as a nightclub singer – while her articulation may have slipped, the overall effect was swinging, smoochy and vocally smoky. Throughout she was sublimely supported by Joseph Middleton.