October 13, 2016
(++++) SONGS OF THEN AND NOW
Out of the Shadows: Rediscovered American Art Songs. Lisa Delan, soprano; Kevin Korth, piano; Matt Haimovitz, cello. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).
Richard Danielpour: Songs of Solitude; War Songs; Toward the Splendid City. Thomas Hampson, baritone; Nashville Symphony conducted by Giancarlo Guerrero. Naxos. $12.99.
Let Me Fly: A Celebration of American Choral Music. University of South Dakota Chamber Singers conducted by David Holdhusen. Navona. $14.99.
Aidan Andrew Dun: Honeyland. Adan Andrew Dun, spoken poetry; Lucie Rejchrtová, piano. Ravello. $14.99.
Cadence: New Works for Voices in Verse by David Kirtley, Joanne D. Carey, Timothy Kramer and Christopher J. Hoh. Navona. $14.99.
It is always a pleasure to rediscover first-quality lost music – or music that has been misplaced, if not exactly lost. And that is just what the performers have done on a new PentaTone release offering 31 songs by 10 American composers of both the recent and more-distant past. One of the most affecting works here, and the longest single song, is the only original composition by a living composer on the disc. And interestingly, the material may be familiar to listeners even though the song itself probably is not. This is A Letter from Sullivan Ballou by John Kander (born 1927), whose text is a letter used by Ken Burns in his widely watched documentary about the U.S. Civil War. Kander gives the lengthy and deeply moving letter a straightforward yet evocative setting, allowing the words – in which Ballou expresses both his deepest love of family and his equally heartfelt love of country – to flow freely and to evoke listeners’ feelings effectively, without any knowledge of Ballou himself being necessary. Ballou was a Union Army officer from Rhode Island who was killed at age 32 at the battle called First Manassas by the South and First Bull Run by the North. His letter – found in his effects after he died – anticipates his likely death and places it in both a personal context and a societal one. The writing is eloquent in its straightforwardness and is not that of an uneducated man: Ballou was a lawyer and politician. Kander’s song and Ballou’s words are all the more touching at a time when the United States is so riven by 21st-century divisions – some of which trace back to Ballou’s time and even before. Other living composers are also represented in very fine performances on this release – although their works are arrangements of existing material, not entirely new songs. David Garner (born 1954) contributes Auld Lang Syne in an arrangement for soprano, cello and piano; Gordon Getty (born 1933) offers Shenandoah for the same forces; and Jack Perla (born 1959) proffers Home, Sweet Home in a similar arrangement. The remaining works on this recording – all of them performed with very considerable sensitivity and attunement to the composers’ expressive intensions – are groups or song cycles. There are six selected songs by Paul Nordoff (1909-1977) and three by Randall Thompson (1899-1984), the four Blue Mountain Ballads by Paul Bowles (1910-1999), seven Songs of Love and Longing by Stephen Paulus (1949-2014), Songs on Four Poems by e.e. cummings by John Duke (1899-1984), and Three Songs of Adieu by Norman Dello Joio (1913-2008) – one of the best-known composers here, whose songs immediately precede Kander’s Ballou setting in a way that both leads into it effectively and gives it well-thought-out context. A number of the works here are première recordings or premières using a female voice, but the attractiveness of the release lies less in what has or has not been recorded before than in the overall high quality of all the settings and performances, and the skill with which the various composers evoke emotions of many kinds, each of them heartfelt in its own way.
A new Naxos recording of music by Richard Danielpour (born 1956) includes two extended song cycles that are both world première recordings and that show yet another first-rate American composer turning thoughts and compositional skills to matters fraught with considerable emotional resonance. Danielpour’s five War Songs (2008) actually have a strong connection with Kander’s setting of Ballou’s letter: Danielpour here sets five texts by Walt Whitman, whose Civil War activities and poems are well-known, the most popular of them being the most conventional, O Captain! My Captain! That is not one of the poems chosen by Danielpour, and for good reason: although the words in War Songs are by Whitman and the cycle was written to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, Danielpour’s motivation for writing the music was a conflict of the 21st century: the Iraq War, and the young men and women whose lives it claimed. Thomas Hampson, whose Hampsong Foundation commissioned War Songs, performs the music with just the right blend of evenness and emotional intensity, and the effect of the final and longest song, Come Up from the Fields Father, which lasts half the length of the whole cycle, is especially affecting here. The accompaniment by the Nashville Symphony under Giancarlo Guerrero is nuanced and subtle throughout, fitting the music very well indeed. Hampson and Guerrero are also well-teamed for Songs of Solitude (2002), yet another of the many, many works written as a response to the terrorist murders of September 11, 2001. Danielpour manages to make his evocative six-song cycle stand out, however, because here as in War Songs, he chooses texts not directly related to the events that inspired the composition but fitting them closely and often in surprising ways. The poems here are by William Butler Yeats, and again it is the longest song of the cycle, The Second Coming, that comes across with greatest intensity and seems most strongly related to the overall theme (although here the climactic song is the penultimate one, before Epilogue). The CD concludes with the only work on it that has been recorded before, Toward the Splendid City (1992), an orchestral portrait of New York – again, something that has been done innumerable times, by many composers. Danielpour’s distinctiveness here comes from a somewhat acerbic take on the city, which, on the basis of this music, he seems to find fascinating, even enthralling, but scarcely an always-positive place to experience even in the decade before the terrorist murders.
The songs are far more straightforward on a new Navona CD called Let Me Fly, which highlights the exceptional quality of the University of South Dakota Chamber Singers under David Holdhusen. The 18 works here collectively create a pleasing mixture of the secular and the sacred, albeit with some slightly jarring transitions from one to the other. James Erb’s version of Shenandoah on this disc makes a very interesting contrast with Gordon Getty’s, since the original lyrics are the words of a man, while Getty gives the song to a female voice and Erb arranges it for chorus. The simple harmonic beauty of the song stands out in each case. Other traditional pieces – especially Dixie (arranged by Norman Luboff) and Go, Tell It on the Mountain (arranged by Stacey Gibbs) – are also especially attractive as handled by the 40-member South Dakota chorus. Stephen Chatman’s setting of the World War I song, In Flanders Fields, is also very emotive. But there is lighter material here as well, including a kind of crossover-to-pop song, Someplace by Jocelyn Hagen, and Ward Swingle’s pleasant and lively arrangement of Country Dances. It would be exaggerating to say that there is profundity in these choral works, but there is certainly emotion, considerable pathos if little tragedy, and many opportunities for this well-balanced, well-conducted choral ensemble to show its ability to handle American works ranging from folk and gospel material to light and bouncy fare.
Matters are considerably more rarefied and intellectual – and less emotionally telling – on a (+++) Ravello CD featuring poetry written and spoken by Aidan Andrew Dun. This is material that strives to show how offbeat (sometimes literally) and unusual it is, insisting that it is special rather than showing how special it is in a more-modest way. Dun tends to draw attention to himself to a greater extent than to his poetry, wanting to emphasize to the audience how poetic he is through titles such as Her Feet as Two White Swans and Invitation to the Golden Quatrain. In striving for a new way to present material – for reasons that are never particularly clear – Dun comes up with something akin to old-fashioned melodrama (words spoken over music) with an overlay of Sprechstimme. Essentially, what he does is to recite words over keyboard accompaniment that, despite the more-than-dutiful playing of Lucie Rejchrtová, has a distinctly subsidiary role that often involves simply repeating rhythmic material again and again – although Rejchrtová’s periodic use of electronic enhancements is occasionally intriguing. Dun’s expressiveness is quite conventional as poetry (“the sadness of my disconnection,” “the heaviness radiates out of my disenchanted being,” “monstrous stratifications of ugliness,” etc.), although some of his evocations of specific places or states of being come through tellingly (Insomnia, for example). This is not so much a recording of music as it is a spoken-word poetry disc whose appeal will be exclusively to those who find Dun’s verbiage attractive and his emoting convincing.
A (+++) Navona anthology CD called Cadence is also of limited appeal – although in this case, the inclusion of material by four composers with some significant differences in style increases the likelihood that listeners not already familiar with the material will find at least some of it congenial. Certainly there is poetry on this disc that is far more involving than Dun’s rather maundering work: poems by William Blake and Carl Sandburg are among those set by the composers here. However, the fact that these poets’ works are well-known and have often been set to music before puts a high burden on contemporary composers’ use of the material – a burden borne here with varying degrees of success. Joanne D. Carey offers sophisticated settings of Blake’s The Lamb (performed by the Stanbery Singers under Paul Stanbery) and The Tyger (performed by Vox Futura under Andrew Shenton), but Blake’s mysticism and use of straightforward language to communicate multifaceted and multilayered concepts does not meld particularly well with Carey’s dissonances and insistent rhythms. As for Sandburg, five of his works are set by Christopher J. Hoh in a cycle, is also performed by the Stansbery ensemble, called Remembering All: Five Sandburg Poems. Here the music is generally fairly effective at elucidating or underlining the emotions of the words to Joy, Monotone, Under the Harvest Moon, I Sang and Follies. The existential simplicity of the works’ settings is nicely reflected in music that, even at its most upbeat, retains a veneer of lyricism that fits the material well. The five Haiku Songs of Karigane by David Kirtley are set in a way that is not always in accord with the material but sometimes manages to deepen it. Kaoru Karigane’s haiku follow the familiar syllabification of these three-line miniatures, and soprano Jennifer Bird and pianist Mutsumi Moteki together extract a sense of open sparseness from the material as Kirtley sets it. But there is rather a lot of openness here, with three of the five settings lasting more than four minutes apiece and the others two minutes each. The compression of thoughts that makes the haiku form so distinctive is here subsumed within pieces that spin out long piano lines – sometimes not even lines but singular, distinct notes that just happen to occur one after the other – in a way quite foreign to the underlying form and intent of the poetry. On the other hand, some of the poems’ implicit lyricism is here made explicit, and that results in occasional instances of quite striking warmth and beauty, even though the cycle as a whole does seem vastly overextended. Interestingly, the shortest work on the CD, Lux Aeterna by Timothy Kramer, produces some of the emotional impact of haiku even though the words (sung by the Kühn Choir conducted by Marek Vorlíček) represent only part of a traditional Mass. Kramer’s harmonies are not consonant in an old-fashioned sense, but neither are they self-consciously dissonant; and the composer’s sense of the meaning of individual words leads him to emphasize them convincingly without appearing to overdo their message. This work shows that however up-to-date a setting may be, it is likely to have the greatest impact if it stays as true to the spirit of the material as composers of yesteryear strove to do.