They could have been singing only for each other. At times, listening felt intrusive. Yet, every word drew us in deeper, every note clamoured for attention. It was like eating in a fine restaurant – all aromas, tastes and colours designed to complement one another.
That was the impression made by Wednesday’s Wigmore Hall performance from mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly and baritone Henk Neven. Some of the credit, however, goes to their choice of repertoire: the 17 mélodies by the French late Romantic composer Henri Duparc. Based on poetry by Baudelaire and Gautier among others, these songs channel fin-de-siècle decadence to intoxicating effect. Every song is a meal in itself; 17 in a row should really carry a calorie warning. While both singers gorged themselves on its excesses, each shrouded the music in a different character.
Neven went for the more straightforward approach, laying out his emotions on a slab. “Soupir” brimmed with longing; “Le galop”, a sense of fearlessness. Occasionally he missed the mark: “Le manoir de Rosemonde” wandered into pantomime territory. “Phidylé” shied away from full-on sensuality. But Neven made up for it in “La vie antérieure”, where his muscular voice softened and yielded to the exact needs of the poetry.
It was ultimately Connolly, however, who reigned over this recital. Refinement and maturity were her calling cards, both in terms of vocal quality and interpretation. She dealt in minutiae, bringing the intensity to a word such as “‘tortures” that someone less focused might bring to an entire song. But she never forced the emotion. That’s why the tenderness of “Chanson triste” was so convincing, as well as the intimacy of her take on “Extase”.
And it’s why her most explosive moments felt as if they had been fully earned. One such moment arrived in the Wagnerian “Au pays où se fait la guerre”; another in the rarely-sung duet “La fuite”, for which she was joined by Neven. Buoyed by Malcolm Martineau’s piano playing, which, elsewhere, took on thunderous proportions, the singers metamorphosed into larger-than-life characters, clearly relishing the opportunity to flaunt their operatic credentials. It only lasted for one song. But the impression lingered on.