Classical Music Home

Welcome to Naxos Records

Keyword Search
 Classical Music Home > Naxos Album Reviews

Album Reviews

See latest reviews of other albums..., November 2016

On this excellent new recording, the wonderfully dark mezzo soprano voice of Sarah Connolly can be heard with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by Simon Wright. Highly recommended. © 2016 Read complete review

Penguin Guide, January 2009

Any new recording of either of these works invites immediate comparison with the classic versions with Dame Janet Baker, and Sarah Connolly comes nearer than any current British mezzo to offering a modern alternative, not only in the rich, firm quality of her voice but in the dedication of her singing. In each of the songs of Sea Pictures she brings out the distinctive qualities of Elgar’s writing, each one so well contrasted with the others, with finely controlled legato phrasing and shading of dynamic. In her contribution to the big cantata, The Music Makers, she offers the element of dedication so essential, with the chorus singing purposefully and Simon Wright drawing strong playing from the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Excellent sound.

Em Marshall
Albion Magazine Online, January 2009

This attractively-programmed disc includes the two Elgar works that feature major roles for mezzo-soprano and orchestra, Sea Pictures and The Music Makers, which thus form an excellent coupling. The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under the expert and sympathetic direction of Simon Wright provides a superb base for what is one of the most magnificent renderings of Sea Pictures available on CD. Although the state-of-the-art performance that Janet Baker recorded with Barbirolli over forty years ago is still the one to beat, this one comes very close, with Connolly rising easily to the work's many challenges. The closing pages of both Sabbath Morning at Sea and The Swimmer illustrate the true power of her voice, which is also capable of great subtlety and perception, as in In Haven.

Wright takes a very positive view of The Music Makers and this comes across clearly in the Introduction, which he begins with an impressive Allegro rather than a Moderato (the theme is marked, characteristically, as nobilmente). He phrases the second theme most beautifully, so that the listener eagerly begins to anticipate a great performance. Sarah Connolly again shines in this work, and when she combines with the excellent Bournemouth Symphony Chorus the music really catches fire. Unfortunately, the balance between chorus and orchestra is not always perfect, so that some of the detail is lost. Nevertheless, these are two outstanding performances that will be difficult to match.

American Record Guide, June 2007

Unlike many of his British contemporaries, Elgar did not excel as a song writer; Sea Pictures is his best effort. In these five songs he captured a very wide range of emotions and displayed his excellent skill at creating atmosphere. The benchmark recording for decades has been Baker's impassioned one with Barbirolli, recorded in 1965, but Sarah Connolly is certainly her match. Her timbre is ideal for the songs (which are often quite low), and the voice is simply gorgeous, even from top to bottom, supported at all dynamic levels.

The Music Makers has a message for all of us. The text, an ode of Arthur O'Shaughnessy (1844-81), asserts that musicians "are the dreamers of dreams, the movers and shakers of the world". The work is mostly for chorus and includes several quotations from other works of Elgar, aming them Enigma Variations, Sea Pictures, and Gerontius. The piece has never achieved wide popularity, but when you follow with the text, you can easily appreciate Elgar's skill and heartfelt response to the O'Shaughnessy ode. (If, on the other hand, you listen casually, it sounds like a sprawling, through-composed work in search of an editor.) There are moments, though, that are truly touching, such as the text "But on one man's soul it hath broken", where Elgar weaves in the Nimrod theme from Enigma. The recording follows closely on one by Mark Elder with the Halle, which is coupled with Dream Children the Froissart Overture, and a Bach prelude and fugue, orchestrated by Elgar. There is little reason to prefer one to the other. I somewhat prefer the singing (both of Connolly and the chorus) here, but I would be guided by the couplings, which for me tip the balance to this release.

Peter J. Rabinowitz
Fanfare, June 2007

"It's easy to understand why Naxos wanted a chance to record the velvet-voiced Sarah Connolly in Sea Pictures. For while she's best known in Baroque and classical repertoire (especially Handel), this rising star turns out to be a persuasive Elgarian too, shaping the phrases with a supple rythmic ebb and flow, with finely shaded dynamics, and with a seductive range of color (listen, as but one example, to the nuanced sound of "slumber" on the line "I murmur my soft slumber-song" in the first song). Her enunciation is exceptional, too."

John Quinn
MusicWeb International, April 2007

Elgar gave three great gifts to mezzo-sopranos and contraltos. The greatest of all was the role of The Angel in The Dream of Gerontius. The other two roles are those contained in the works included on this disc. Last year I heard Sarah Connolly give a very fine account of the part of The Angel in Gerontius and this made me eager to hear this disc. Of course, in this repertoire Miss Connolly faces stiff competition, not least from the doyenne of British mezzos, Dame Janet Baker and there is also a very fine, recent recording of The Music Makers by Mark Elder and the Hallé on that orchestra’s own label. How does Miss Connolly fare in the face of such competition? Very well, I’d say.

The Music Makers is Elgar’s penultimate choral masterpiece. It was to be followed only by Spirit of England (1915). He composed the piece in 1912 for the Birmingham Festival, choosing for his text, a poem by Arthur O’Shaughnessy (1844-1881), which had been published in 1874 in a collection entitled Music and Moonlight. Although concentrated work on the composition took place over a very short space of time between May and July 1912 the gestation period was much longer, as was often the case with Elgar. Indeed, it was in 1908 that he obtained permission to set the poem.

James McCarthy
Limelight, March 2007

A very warm welcome to this splendid new recording of Elgar’s gorgeous Sea Pictures. Of the six versions currently available this is one of the few serious contenders in the field sicne the great Baker/Barbirolli EMI recording from 1965. On this new recording Sarah Connolly is very fine and very moving. Her diction is clear and the balance required in this work between thoughtfulness and bursts of heroic idealism are sensitively managed. Conductor Stephen Wright clearly knows his Elgar, eliciting some wonderful playing from the Bournemouth orchestra, conjuring up orchestral detail I had not noticed before.

Emma Baker
Classic FM, January 2007

Following the huge success of the Enigma Variations in 1899, Edward Elgar found himself Britain's most fêted composer. A few months later he composed Sea Pictures, his only song cycle, based on a set of poems by different writers, obliquely linked by their themes of the sea. But this work isn't full of the celebratory confidence of Engima; there is something more subtle and muted about it - the ultimate message of the music is the draw of the sea towards the unknown. But then Elgar was a man living on the cusp of the 19th and 20th centuries, whose sensibilities belonged to the former. There is often a sense of nostalgia and loss running through his music, as if he is trying to keep hold of an era that's slipping away.

Sea Pictures received its first performance in October 1899 by the statuesque young contralto Clara Butt, ('dressed like a mermaid', according to Elgar, who was conducting). He wrote to a friend afterwards, 'she sang really well'. The work was an immediate success and has since become a cornerstone of English music. It has been performed by many great singers from Kathleen Ferrier to Janet Baker, in her classic 1965 recording with John Barbirolli and the LSO, and now the acclaimed English mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly has put it on disc.

For Connolly, the key to interpreting Elgar is to steer clear of over-indulgence, which she does by responding to the texts with imagination, freshness and urgency. Elgar's choice of texts has come under fire from critics for being second­rate Victoriana, but he was obviously deeply inspired by the poems (one of which is by his wife Alice) and used them to create some of his most subtle orchestral palates and word-painting.

Connolly expresses the full range of colour and emotion implicit in the songs. She highlights the gently rocking rhythms of the tender 'Sea-Slumber Song'; and is airy and light in 'Where Corals Lie', but makes the listener aware of the dark undertow of the music - the poet is being lured beneath the waves to oblivion. In the final song, 'The Swimmer', she surfs effortlessly above the mighty orchestral surge. She more than rises to the challenges of a song-cycle that lies low in the voice for many mezzo­sopranos and requires sustained singing of an almost Wagnerian scale on occasion. The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra provides a subtle and sensitive accompaniment.

Sea Pictures is here coupled with The Music Makers. Written in 1912 for chorus, orchestra and contralto soloist, this work is full of typical Elgarian nostalgia - so much so that he freely quotes from previous works, including 'Nimrod' from the Enigma Variations, The Dream of Gerontius, Sea Pictures and even the Violin Concerto. For this reason, and again for Elgar's choice of text, The Music Makers was criticised at its premiere, but it's clearly a tightly structured and masterfully written work that's full of wistful sadness. It is a setting of a poem by Arthur O'Shaughnessy, with its famous first lines 'We are the music makers, we are the dreamers of dreams', its message being that the artists, musicians and poets are the real 'movers and shakers' of history.

Here the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus plays a major role. Apart from the occasional ragged ensemble at the ends of phrases, they give a strong and committed performance. The orchestra is spotlighted in some wonderfully sensitive playing under Simon Wright, and Connolly responds with fresh, vivid singing.

It's a high enough recommendation that this disc contains two such classic works, recorded with a soloist of the first quality and with superb orchestral playing - that it's also at budget price is the icing on the cake.

Andrew Achenbach
Gramophone, December 2006

A powerful Elgar pairing with Sarah Connolly in shining form throughout

The competition's tough but this new performance of The Music Maker (one of Elgar's most poignant and troubled utterances, which movingly incorporates material from some of his greatest compositions) can hold its head high. Simon Wright steers a commendably clear-sighted course and coaxes an idiomatic response from his Bournemouth forces.

Elder's recent Halle version may be both more volatile and refined but is not untainted by a certain squeaky-clean self-awareness; nor is his chosen mezzo ideally cast. Andrew Davis penetrates more unerringly to the work's vulnerable core but his nobly compassionate reading is now only available as part of a five­CD set (albeit at super-budget price). On his famous 1966 recording Boult paces the music to perfection - and he has the inestimable advantage of Janet Baker at her peerlessly eloquent best. But Sarah Connolly proves scarcely less raptly responsive, singing with glorious radiance, security and richness of tone; her delivery of the final line ("And a singer who sings no more") is deeply affecting.

Connolly also steps up to the mark in the Sea Pictures (which follows after too short a gap). Hers is a gripping, intelligent display, combining keen poetic and dramatic instinct with clarity of diction, all technical challenges effortlessly surmounted (her climactic top A in "The Swimmer" is thrilling). Perhaps the opening "Sea Slumber­Song" might have moved on a fraction more (and here I'd have preferred a greater delineation of mood between Elgar's Andantino and Tranquillo markings); otherwise, I have no qualms with either Wright's observant, flexible backing or Naxos's airy yet transparent sound (organ pedal and bass drum register to subtly telling effect).

As for rivals, well, for me Baker and Barbirolli (on mid-price EMI) remain unassailable but Connolly's resplendent and communicative Sea Pictures demands to be heard.

Hugh Canning
Times Online, November 2006

“A singer who sings no more” — a line from O’Shaughnessy’s ode The Music Makers — looms over performances and recordings of both of these works: Janet Baker, whose 1960s versions are yardsticks by which all others are judged. In the song cycle Sea Pictures, nobody has come nearer than Connolly to equalling Baker. She often sounds uncannily like her predecessor, but this isn’t a copycat interpretation: Connolly opts for a slightly broader tempo in the Sea Slumber Song, and generally for faster ones in the four other songs. Like Baker, she rises majestically to the emotional climax of Sabbath Morning at Sea, expressing a sort of patriotic ecstasy. The Bournemouth Music Makers isn’t quite on this exalted level, though Connolly bids fair again to match Baker in the solo sections.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group