Sarah Connolly shines in Arthur Bliss cantatas

This outstanding release presents three relatively late works by Arthur Bliss. At the time, they were considered a little old-fashioned. Heard now, though, I think they show the originality of Bliss’ vision — and his skill at orchestral writing.

Mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly shines in “The Enchantress” and “Mary of Magdala.” Her voice can sound warm, with rich honeyed tones. Or it can have a steely edge to it, projecting a menacing strength.

That wide range of technique is put to the test with “The Enchantress.” Bliss wrote the work for Kathleen Ferrier, “in admiration of her singing.” It played to all of Ferrier’s vocal and dramatic strengths. And from the sound of this performance, Connolly’s as well.

“Mary of Magdala” is also dramatic, but of a more subtle nature. Mary Magdalene is grieving at Jesus’ open tomb when the gardener talks to her. As she converses with him, she slowly realizes that it’s actually Jesus, and her grief turns to overwhelming joy.

Connolly presents the initial emotions of Mary with restraint (compared with those in “The Enchantress”). And while that loosens as the work progresses, Connolly remains focused. She presents Mary’s joy as spiritual rather than visceral.

Also included is Bliss’ commission for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, “Meditations on a Theme by John Blow.” The theme was a setting of Psalm 23. Each meditation uses a different passage, making this work a study in contrasts.

Andrew Davis leads the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in some fine performances. This is an SACD release. If you choose to purchase a digital version, opt for the highest resolution you can. The fine details of Sarah Connolly’s singing –especially in “The Enchantress” should not be missed.

Arthur Bliss: Mary of Magdala
The Enchantress; Meditations on a Theme by John Blow
Sarah Connolly, mezzo-soprano; James Platt, bass
BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus; Andrew Davis, conductor
Chandos CHSA 5242

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