Together with their long-time collaborator, pianist Julius Drake, and with the remarkable contribution of the Carducci String Quartet, two notable singers – Dame Sarah Connolly and Ian Bostridge – proposed for their joint recital two Belle Époque song cycles ingrained with Romantic themes of love, loss and death. Stemming from the pens of two composers, Ernest Chausson and Ralph Vaughan Williams, having little in common, the songs were given an outstanding treatment.

Ian Bostridge, Julius Drake and the Carducci String Quartet
© Barbican | Mark Allan

Vaughan Williams began working on a song cycle setting to music six poems from A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad in 1909, upon returning from Paris where he studied for several months with Maurice Ravel. The French composer’s influence can be discerned in multiple points of the score, from the glistening Agitato opening and the word painting in On Wenlock Edge to the brief instrumental interlude in Is My Team Ploughing?, played with elegant discretion by Julius Drake and the Carducci Quartet, to the piano-intoned church bell imitations in Bredon Hill. Nevertheless, there is an unmistaken Englishness in this unusual combination of tenor, piano and string quartet, both reminiscent of Tudor music and a prefiguration of Benjamin Britten’s idiom. The latter was particularly evident in Bostridge’s idiosyncratic rendering, the tenor’s voice dancing around the stanzas with his trademark intensity. He has never shied away from adding unexpected protruding edges to musical lines. Drake and the Carduccis tried to smooth them out, but the tenor’s sharper approach might have been closer to Housman’s bleak vision.

Dame Sarah Connolly, Julius Drake and the Carducci String Quartet
© Barbican | Mark Allan

At the crossroads of multiple influences – Wagner, first and foremost, Massenet and Franck’s Romanticism, and the emergence of Debussy’s symbolism – Chausson’s output has its obvious charms. The rendition of his Poème de l’amour et de la mer, presented in a version for mezzo-soprano and piano quintet by Franck Villard, abundantly proved it. Despite being linked to a banal text written by the composer’s friend, Maurice Bouchor, tracing the passage of a love affair and its painful dénouement, the music powerfully conveys the essence of Tristan-inspired longings for the unattainable, embedded in rapturous descriptions of nature. Drake and the Carduccis made sure that the swell of the full orchestra in the original score is still palpable in Villard’s distilled version. The repeated sad motif intoned by cellist Emma Denton was especially heart-wrenching. Connolly’s dark and velvety mezzo easily floated above the small ensemble. Her clear French diction, the richness of nuances and  the well-defined dynamics she brought to every single phrase were incredible.

All the protagonists reunited for an encore which was clearly not an impromptu endeavour. Composed in 1896, in between the two main works on the programme, Gabriel Fauré’s brief Pleurs d'or (Tears of Gold) belongs to the same world, the music and the lyrics (Albert Victor Samain) sharing the sense of sadness and longing with the other two pieces. Two voices start separately, but sing together for most of the piece, in the same little waves and respecting the same rhythmical pattern with very few exceptions to harmonic consensus. Iain Farrington extended the original piano accompaniment to include a string quartet that fitted very well in the overall soundscape.

This performance was reviewed from the Barbican Centre's video stream