BENJAMIN BRITTEN (1913 – 1976), REYNALDO HAHN (1874 – 1947), MAURICE RAVEL (1875 – 1937), CAMILLE SAINT-SAËNS (1835 – 1921), YEHUDI WYNER (b. 1929): Moments of Love—Dominique Labelle, soprano; Yehudi Wyner, piano [Recorded at Granoff Music Center, Tufts University, Medford, Massachusetts, USA, 16 – 18 July 2012; Bridge Records BRIDGE 9406; 1CD, 69:17; Available from Amazon, ArkivMusic, iTunes, and major music retailers]
The programs for many vocal recitals seem to have been devised by tossing an assortment of scores into the wind and selecting some haphazard arrangements of material from the resulting muddles. Though it cannot be denied that some of those recitals over which singers take care to foster an underlying thematic continuity are ultimately didactic to the point of being rather precious, programs with at least a modicum of thoughtful construction offer the subtle criteria by which artists are distinguished from tradesmen. For the intelligent singer, questions of what to sing are as challenging of those of what not to sing: more of a singer's artistry is sometimes revealed by music that is omitted from a recital than by the pieces that are sung. Spirited Canadian soprano Dominique Labelle and pianist and composer Yehudi Wyner take advantage of the boon of a superb recording for Bridge Records, masterfully produced by David v.R. Bowles, to create in Moments of Love a recital disc with extraordinary emotional depth and consistency. Not all of the songs that form Moments of Love are obviously comfortable companions, but the evocative presentation of them provides a cumulative examination of the kaleidoscopic, sometimes maniacally fractured nature of love that is almost Shakespearean in character. The course of true love never did run smooth, after all, but the current of unforced expressivity that floods Moments of Love is never impeded by wavering interest or indifference. Merely as a display of singing and pianism of complementary brilliance, Moments of Love is a great success: as an example of creative, credible development of a recital program, the disc is an unmitigated triumph.
Opening the disc with Ravel’s Trois Poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé is a bold choice but one that pays off handsomely. Composed in 1913 whilst Ravel was collaborating with Igor Stravinsky on orchestrating Mussorgsky’s unfinished opera Khovanschina, the French composer’s settings of ‘Soupir,’ ‘Placet futile,’ and ‘Surgi de la croupe et du bond’ were inspired both by his proximity to Stravinsky and the publication of a new edition of Mallarmé’s œuvre. Mr. Wyner’s playing of Ravel’s piano accompaniments captures all of the colors and mystery of the more familiar chamber ensemble version of the songs. Ravel’s modernity is here at its most beguiling, and the focused tone and laser-accurate intonation that Ms. Labelle brings to the three songs are both admirable and necessary to full appreciation of the subtleties of Ravel’s harmonies. Especially in ‘Surgi de la croupe et du bond,’ the starkness of the texts drew from Ravel’s genius an almost primordial sense of unease, but the poise of Ms. Labelle’s singing reveals the melodic distinction that lurks within the music.
The tuneful victories of Saint-Saëns’s songs are more easily won, but the pointed perspicacity of the readings by Ms. Labelle and Mr. Wyner discloses that Saint-Saëns, too, was a composer with at least one foot firmly planted in the 20th Century. Ms. Labelle launches the Saint-Saëns selections with the latest of the songs included on the disc, ‘Aimons-nous et dormons’ from 1892. To this and to the Victor Hugo settings, ‘L’attente’ and ‘La coccinelle,’ Ms. Labelle gives sly suggestions of subdued eroticism that shimmer through her nuanced phrasing. Mr. Wyner’s virtuosity is given wonderful outings in ‘Tournoiement,’ Saint-Saëns’s songe d’opium, and the ubiquitous ‘Danse macabre,’ and he rises to the occasion with avidity and humor. The rapid-fire vocal lines of ‘Danse macabre’ are also tests of the singer’s musical and verbal flexibility, and she, too, proves more than equal to the task. The unflagging energy that Ms. Labelle devotes to ‘Danse macabre’—to all of the songs on Moments of Love, for that matter—is one of the most captivating aspects of her artistry.
The centerpiece of Moments of Love is Mr. Wyner’s own The Second Madrigal: Voices of Women, originally scored in 1999 for soprano soloist, string quintet, wind quartet, and percussion. Conceived with Ms. Labelle’s voice in mind, the 2012 version of The Second Madrigal for soprano and piano offers a profound exploration of the Eternal Feminine, the examinations of physical beauty and its transience in turns engaging, exasperating, wise, and wistful. The eight songs of The Second Madrigal draw upon compelling sources including Chinese, Sanskrit, and Polish poetry, and though Mr. Wyner’s compositional idiom is unapologetically contemporary, the skillfulness of his word-setting has much in common with the accomplishments of the other composers represented on Moments of Love. The affection and technical commitment that Mr. Wyner brings to his playing of his own music are not surprising but are very rewarding. There is something strangely sinister in Ms. Labelle’s singing of the line ‘Why is she making up so early?’ in the first song, ‘Getting Up in Winter,’ and her negotiations of the sometimes jagged, sometimes glowingly lyrical vocal lines in the songs are aligned to a pervasively intelligent interpretation of text. The poet’s anger in the lines ‘I am sick of rouging my cheeks / My face in the mirror disgusts me’ in ‘Morning’ is powerfully conveyed, and the melancholy of ‘There is no semblance of the beautiful young girl I was & long for still’ in ‘Cosmetics Do No Good’ is bracing. The calmly rapt resolution of ‘The Greatest Love’ is enhanced by the irony of the closing line (‘Her children say: “Old fool.”’), delivered by Ms. Labelle with bite made all the more penetrating by the beauty of her tone. Her singing of The Second Madrigal verifies the aptness of her voice for the music that Mr. Wyner composed for it, and it is exceptionally gratifying to have this recording of an important singer in her prime performing music that her voice inspired.
The songs of Reynaldo Hahn remain too little appreciated by both singers and listeners, but it is difficult to imagine Ms. Labelle’s singing of five of Hahn’s chansons failing to inspire appreciative curiosity among those who hear Moments of Love. Like Schubert, Hahn’s greatest gift is his facility for melodiousness, and the lyrical breadth of his response to poetry is apparent from the first phrase of ‘Le printemps.’ The incandescent loveliness of Ms. Labelle’s voicing of ‘Couchons-nous au bord des étangs, que nous maux amers se guérissent’ is deeply moving, and the poised passion of her performance of the paean to the first nightingale of spring, ‘Le Rossignol des Lilas,’ is arresting. No less engrossing is the insouciance of her singing of ‘Fumée,’ the metaphorical desire for the freedom of smoke to escape tangible boundaries proving unexpectedly evocative. The pensiveness of ‘Dans la nuit’ is uplifted by Ms. Labelle’s gleaming tone, and Hahn’s setting of Paul Verlaine’s ‘L’heure exquise’—one of the composer’s most familiar songs—glimmers in the warmth of Ms. Labelle’s performance. Hahn may not have been a composer of the first order, but gifted musicians can prove that his songs are the equals of those of the best composers of his generation. Ms. Labelle and Mr. Wyner make that argument more convincingly than any other artists yet recorded in this enchanting music.
Though not conceived for performance together as a cycle, Britten’s extant Cabaret Songs nonetheless form an effective quartet. Settings of texts by W. H. Auden, the songs show Britten at his most clever. ‘Calypso’ convincingly replicates the lilt of New World rhythms: the sensations of hazardous exuberance pulse through both the vocal lines and the accompaniment, and Ms. Labelle and Mr. Wyner capture the sunny charm of the music. ‘Johnny’ is a masterpiece in miniature, and Ms. Labelle is nowhere more in her element than in the parody of Britten’s mock operatics. Still, every technical feat is put to invigorating dramatic use, and the joy in Ms. Labelle’s singing contrasts with the deepening sentiments expressed as the music becomes more angular. ‘Tell me the Truth about Love’ is one of the great songs of the 20th Century and one that deserves to be in the repertory of every singer capable of doing it justice. Ms. Labelle strolls through the song with the narrative seduction and ‘swing’ of Billie Holiday, and Mr. Wyner supports her with unerring command of the twists in the course of the music’s progression. ‘Funeral Blues’ is among Auden’s best-known poems, and its impact is heightened by the whimsy of Britten’s musical setting. Sincerity resonates in Ms. Labelle’s singing of the song, her tone invoking the sting of loss even in the music’s most frivolous passages. This was surely the effect that Britten intended: by depicting the drudgery of superficial pursuits, the composer intensifies the force of Auden’s message of the mundane goings-on of life reflecting rather than distracting from the pain of loss. Ms. Labelle’s and Mr. Wyner’s concept of ‘Funeral Blues’ is anything but mournful, however: their mercurial collaboration provides success as complete as that of Britten’s and Auden’s.
In inventiveness of repertoire, closeness of ensemble between singer and pianist, sagacity of interpretation, and simple beauty, Moments of Love is an unusual disc. It is unusual, too, in that it exhibits preparation that engendered performances that exude spontaneity, the vastly different songs unified by the wit and wisdom of the marvelous musicianship on offer. There are in life moments of love that confuse, confound, thrill, and terrify, those that break the heart and those that mend it. In these Moments of Love, Dominique Labelle and Yehudi Wyner dispense nothing but pleasure that stirs the soul with the truest essence of song.