26 September 2013

CD REVIEW: STOPPING BY – American Art Songs (Kyle Bielfield, tenor; Lachlan Glen, piano; Delos DE 3445)

STOPPING BY - American Art Songs (Delos DE 3445)

MARK ABEL (b. 1948); SAMUEL BARBER (1910 – 1981); AMY BEACH (1867 – 1944); IRVING BERLIN (1888 – 1989); LEONARD BERNSTEIN (1918 – 1990); PAUL BOWLES (1910 – 1999); CHARLES WAKEFIELD CADMAN (1881 – 1946); ELLIOTT CARTER (1908 – 2012); AARON COPLAND (1900 – 1990); CELIUS DOUGHERTY (1902 – 1986); JOHN DUKE (1899 – 1984); STEPHEN FOSTER (1826 – 1864); CHARLES THOMAS GRIFFES (1884 – 1920); NED ROREM (b. 1923): Stopping By – American Art SongsKyle Bielfield, tenor; Michael Samis, cello; Lachlan Glen, piano [Recorded at First United Methodist Church, Murfreesboro, Tennessee, USA, on 8, 9, 11, and 16 March 2013; DELOS DE 3445; 1CD, 71:54; Available from Amazon, ClassicsOnline, Delos, and major music retailers]

Despite the advocacy of influential artists and organizations like baritone Thomas Hampson and his Hampsong Foundation, the pulsing vein of American Art Songs remains virtually untapped in comparison with the ruddy tides of Germanic Lieder and French chansons that flood the world’s recital halls and recording studios.  On the surface, at least, it seems inexplicable that the words of a poet so much of his time and place as Franz Grillparzer, set to the music of his contemporary Schubert, should be any less unpalatable beyond the reach of the specific traditions in which they were created than a Samuel Barber setting of verses by Robert Frost.  Why, then, does every music lover from Vienna to Vanuatu know Schubert’s ‘Ständchen’ while so few know Barber’s ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’?  Are Beach’s or Copland’s melodies less caressing to the ears than Schumann’s or Fauré’s, or are the words of Dickinson or Whitman less inspiring to the soul than those of Goethe or Mallarmé?  Perhaps there are clues in the respective discographies of these repertories that elucidate the underlying reasons for the disparities.  Among the champions of the heritage of Teutonic Lieder are many of the greatest German-speaking singers of the era since the popularization of the gramophone: Heinrich Schlusnus, Hans Hotter, Peter Anders, Dame Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Christa Ludwig, and, perhaps most influential of all, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.  Illuminating is the fact that to the ranks of these extraordinary artists can be added the names of Kathleen Ferrier, whose interpretations of Mahler scores large and small were considered authoritative by no less an authority than Bruno Walter; Teresa Stich-Randall, whose singing of Richard Strauss’s Vier letzte Lieder was minute in comparison with Flagstad but no less beautiful or stylish for that;  Dame Janet Baker, whose focused tone could prove as poignant in Schubert as in Britten or Purcell; Dame Margaret Price, whose singing of Schumann puts even German-born singers to shame; and Jessye Norman, who made the Lieder of Brahms as much her own as Lotte Lehmann ever did.  American singers of color often explore the rich heritage of Spirituals, which merit the attention of all English-speaking singers but which, rightly or wrongly, are subject to associations which many audiences find discomfiting, but the prize to which discriminating singers aspire is recognition as an insightful interpreter of German Lieder.  It is therefore courageous and incredibly welcome for a promising young singer to introduce himself to music lovers with a recording of American Art Songs.  Having committed himself to doing so, tenor Kyle Bielfield surrenders himself to every song on Stopping By, delivering the energy, musicality, and unequivocal enthusiasm that American composers and poets deserve and so infrequently receive.

Mr. Bielfield is accompanied on this musical journey by Sydney-born pianist Lachlan Glen, like Mr. Bielfield a graduate of the Juilliard School.  Mr. Glen’s Juilliard concentration was in collaborative piano, and the fluidity, integrity, and technical completeness of his playing confirm that he is a highly-skilled collaborative artist rather than a mere accompanist.  Accompanists play for singers in auditions and rehearsals, but Mr. Glen here matches his playing to every verbal and musical nuance of Mr. Bielfield’s singing, creating an environment in which singer and pianist phrase as one.  This disc’s programme encompasses a wide array of styles, ranging from the Romantic-infused idiom of Amy Beach’s ‘Autumn Song’ to the sparsely chromatic musical language of Leonard Bernstein’s ‘Spring Will Come Again.’  That Mr. Glen plays every song with equal distinction is indicative of the vibrant responsiveness of his interpretive gifts rather than any sameness of approach.  In Bernstein’s ‘Spring Will Come Again’ and ‘Dream with Me,’ both from his little-known Peter Pan and strongly reminiscent of ‘Somewhere’ from West Side Story, and in the dolorous strains of Stephen Foster’s ‘Gentle Annie,’ cellist Michael Samis joins with Mr. Bielfield to virtually sing in duet, his tone walnut-hued and his vibrato matched perfectly to the singer’s.

Vocally, this is an ambitious programme, not least because English is not an easy language in which to sing.  Placement of English vowels is contrary to many of the methods of vocal production that, being central to the shaping of Italian and French texts, become routine for young singers.  One of the principal achievements of Mr. Bielfield’s singing is the seeming ease with which he maintains the focused sweetness of his timbre even above the staff without distorting vowel sounds that are not congenial to facile vocal placement.  Speakers of English do not often concern themselves with niceties of diphthongs, leaving such things to pedagogues of other languages, but attentive singers cannot ignore details of English pronunciation and the ways in which composers manipulate language in pursuit of musical effects.  Mr. Bielfield’s diction is wonderfully clear without being stilted or over-enunciated, and he thankfully avoids the ‘Britishisms’ that mysteriously creep into the singing of many Americans.  Hearing the eloquence with which Mr. Bielfield sings Emily Dickinson’s ‘Beauty is not caused, it is’ (‘Beauty—be not caused—It is’ in Dickinson’s manuscript) is a rare pleasure, allied as it is with the luminosity of his voicing of Celius Dougherty’s musical setting.  In all of the songs recorded on this disc, Mr. Bielfield’s singing discloses a sappy lyric tenor still glistening with youth.  No mannerisms distract from the purity of his singing, and only a few notes at the very top of the range prove occasionally troublesome.  On the whole, Mr. Bielfield’s singing is as crisp and refreshing as a spring rain, and his liquid tone washes over these songs most attractively.

Spanning a wide swath of American musical history, Stopping By explores the beginnings of American popular song with fetching performances of Stephen Foster’s ‘Beautiful Dreamer’ and ‘Gentle Annie.’  In addition to the Bernstein numbers, Mr. Bielfield pays homage to America’s oft-dismissed Musical Theatre tradition with an intelligent performance of Irving Berlin’s ‘Change Partners’ that exudes the song’s gentle melancholy without dissolving into overblown sentimentalism.  Amy Beach’s ‘Autumn Song’ is a superb choice for opening the disc, and Mr. Bielfield spins a silver thread of tone through Beach’s elegant melodic lines.  Equally lovely is his singing of Beach’s ‘Go Not Too Far,’ a setting of a poem by Florence Earle Coates.  Ned Rorem’s ‘The Lordly Hudson,’ one of the better-known songs on this disc, has rarely been sung so simply and to such rhapsodic effect.  The same composer’s ‘Snake,’ its swirling melismas akin to the Benjamin Britten of The Turn of the Screw, is sung with complete control of rhythm, vital to revealing Rorem’s clever setting of the text.  Elliott Carter’s ‘The Rose Family’ is an unexpectedly effusive piece of concentrated lyrical expression, the loveliness of Mr. Bielfield’s voice giving the song a plaintive quality that gets closer to the heart of the famously enigmatic composer far more perceptively than is possible in many of his experimental works.  Aaron Copland’s ‘Simple Gifts,’ one of the ubiquitous treasures of American Song, and ‘Long Time Ago’ are sung with ideal grace.

A number of songs that slumber in relative obscurity are awakened by Mr. Bielfield.  Perhaps the most significant group of these is the work of John Duke, whose songs ‘Water That Falls and Runs Away,’ ‘Bread and Music,’ ‘Little Elegy,’ ‘Wood Song,’ ‘February Twilight,’ and ‘Morning in Paris’ receive performances from Mr. Bielfield that show off their charms alluringly.  Charles Thomas Griffes’s ‘Phantoms’ and ‘The Water-Lily’ are gems by a composer whose work merits greater exposure.  These, Paul Bowles’s ‘In the Woods,’ and Charles Wakefield Cadman’s ‘From the Land of the Sky-Blue Water’—a forgotten but beautiful piece inspired by Native American themes that was frequently sung in recital by Lillian Nordica—all draw from Mr. Bielfield singing of poise and ardor that never cross the boundary into saccharine sweetness.

The most pervasive poetic influence examined on Stopping By—that which gives the disc its title—is that of Robert Frost’s ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,’ which is offered in settings by Samuel Barber, John Duke, and Ned Rorem.  Beyond America’s shores, Frost suffers from the hoary perception that art that is popular or widely-acknowledged as representative of the spirit of a nation is rarely lasting or meritorious on a global scale.  That three of America’s finest composers of art songs turned their crafts to setting Frost’s verses confirms that, whatever the wider world might suggest, the poet’s work is of tremendous importance to lyric art in America.  Barber’s setting is in the uncomplicated, unapologetically emotional style of his Adagio for Strings, and Mr. Bielfield sings it lovingly, never condescending to the simplicity of the expressive conceits.  Duke’s enigmatic setting shivers with the chill felt by a traveler in winter, Mr. Bielfield’s singing providing an infusion of warmth into the music.  His singing also coveys the weariness of the traveler in the stark musical language of Rorem’s setting.

The most recent song on offer is Mark Abel’s ‘The Benediction,’ composed as recently as 2012 and here recorded for the first time.  Truly a ‘crossover’ artist, Mr. Abel’s interests have extended to a broad range of genres and media, and all of his experience united in ‘The Benediction.’  Taking the song at face value, Mr. Bielfield allows the music to weave its spell without imposing his own ‘effects.’  Far too many young singers mistake idiosyncrasy for legitimate interpretation, but Mr. Bielfield never falls into this trap: with a voice of such quality and an artistry as obviously thoughtful as his, he only needs to sing in order to reach the souls of a song and a listener.

It is apparent in every song recorded on Stopping By that this submersion in the largely uncharted waters of American Art Song was a labor of love for Kyle Bielfield and Lachlan Glen.  Their partnership produces one of the most rewarding explorations of this underserved repertory, joining overlooked recordings by Mildred Miller, Eleanor Steber, and Jan De Gaetani.  The quality of these songs can be debated by those with nothing else to do, but the quality of these performances leaves little room for discussion.  Kyle Bielfield and Lachlan Glen may well go on to record extraordinary accounts of Die schöne Müllerin, Winterreise, and Dichterliebe.  What they have recorded here are performances of some of America’s most beautiful songs that do not attempt to inflate or overstate their importance.  Emily Dickinson wrote that ‘This world is not Conclusion. / A sequel stands beyond… / Invisible, as Music… / But positive, as Sound.’  This disc is but the beginning of an exquisite journey, both for these intriguing young artists and for the art of American Song, and the plentiful enticements of this recording inspire the hope that many sequels stand beyond.