23 November 2013

CD REVIEW: Jake Heggie & Gene Scheer – HERE/AFTER, Songs of Lost Voices (S. Costello, J. DiDonato, N. Gunn, T. Trevigne; PentaTone PTC 5186 515)

Jake Heggie & Gene Scheer - here/after (PentaTone PTC 5186 515)

JAKE HEGGIE (b. 1961) and GENE SCHEER (b. 1958): here/after, Songs of Lost Voices—S. Costello (tenor), J. DiDonato (mezzo-soprano), N. Gunn (baritone), T. Trevigne (soprano), E. Gorlova (soprano), A. Traughber (soprano); C. Wincenc (flute), D. Walker (flute), J. González Granero (clarinet), D. Harms (violin), M. Teicholz (guitar), E. Miland (cello); The Alexander String Quartet; J. Heggie (piano) [Recorded at the Scoring Stage, Skywalker Sound, Marin County, California, 4 – 11 September and 5 – 6 October 2012; PentaTone PTC 5186 515; 2 SACDs, 130:33; Available from Amazon, ClassicsOnline, and major music retailers]

It is likely that the events and aftermath of 11 September 2001, a day on which so many aspects of life in the United States and throughout the world changed in ways large and small, will reverberate in American culture for decades to come.  Until the last pair of eyes that witnessed the falling of the World Trade Center towers is closed by death, images such as those of that day cannot be forgotten.  Like photos of the dead at Antietam, the flaming vessels in Pearl Harbor, and the starved children of Ethiopia, perhaps these, too, will someday be things that only haunt the pages of history books.  Memorializing the events of 09.11 is a task of fearsome enormity.  Even after more than a decade, the wounds of the losses of life, peace of mind, and a complacent innocence still bleed at the slightest injury, real or perceived.  One of the greatest insights displayed in this recording of music by composer Jake Heggie and poet Gene Scheer is their exploration of the delicate notion of ownership of tragedy.  Whose right is it to weep in dark hours for pain that is still fresh, and whose duty is it to turn away in respect?  here/after is not so much a collection of music that seeks to commemorate specific events or individuals as it is a discussion in song of the complex, often confounding ways in which humans and their societies cope with tragedies they are powerless to prevent or ignore.  There are in here/after as many smiles as there are tears, and in this dichotomy, this coexistence of joy and sorrow in the expression of grief, is the heart of this music.  Having collaborated on a widely-acclaimed operatic setting of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, Mr. Heggie and Mr. Scheer are assured masters of the art of uniting texts with music that celebrates rather than undermining the richness of ambivalence, and the varied music on here/after—varying in form but wondrously consistent in quality—reveals the finest elements of both the composer’s and the poet’s work.  If 09.11 has assumed the connotation of a sort of American Holocaust, the bittersweet reflections of here/after remind that this tragedy, both uniquely public and stingingly private, is neither isolated nor debilitating.  Whether they are the struggles of insular communities or of whole nations, these ‘times that try men’s souls’ find in the music of here/after voices with which to sing of memories best honored by looking inward and moving forward.

The instrumental pieces on here/after, Soliloquy and Fury of Light for flute and piano, are evocative exhibitions of Mr. Heggie’s gifts for constructing melodic strands with an almost Baroque sensibility, his understanding of both traditional and innovative ways in which instruments interact sonically shaping the eloquent refrains of his compositional style.  Beautifully played by Mr. Heggie and flautist Carol Wincenc, Soliloquy is a paraphrase of the thematic material of ‘Beyond’ from Pieces of 9/11.  Few composers working today write for the flute as fluently as Mr. Heggie, and Soliloquy is a compelling dialogue between flute and piano that preserves the spirit of ‘Beyond’ but takes the development of the theme in new directions.  Fury of Light receives from Ms. Wincenc and Mr. Heggie a performance of staggering intensity, both players immersing themselves completely in the music’s depictions of fire.  Cleverly integrating themes from his operas Moby-Dick and Three Decembers, Mr. Heggie created what is essentially a flute sonata of the elegance and controlled angst all but extinct since the death of Ravel.  The ‘Elegy’ and ‘Meditation’ movements of Fury of Light radiate the burning intensity of the subject matter, and the outer movements—‘Fast’ and ‘Very Fast’—glisten with inventiveness that derives great impact from Ms. Wincenc’s and Mr. Heggie’s enthusiastic playing.

Written for mezzo-soprano and string quartet, Camille Claudel – Into the Fire recalls the day on which the French sculptor and muse of the better-known Auguste Rodin was confined to the Ville-Évrard asylum.  Mr. Scheer’s poetry movingly conveys the uncanny lucidity of Claudel’s insanity as she takes leave of sculptures in her studio, and Mr. Heggie provides melodic lines that dig into the nuances of the language with sounds that are both unmistakably modern and mildly suggestive of the tonal world of Debussy, with whom Claudel was erroneously rumored to have shared a liaison.  The playing of the Alexander String Quartet—violinists Zakarias Grafilo and Frederick Lifsitz, violist Paul Yarborough, and cellist Alexander Walsh-Wilson—conveys every subtlety of Mr. Heggie’s music, each player’s virtuosity making easy going of series of very difficult passages.  The restless dignity of ‘L’Age Mûr,’ the cycle’s penultimate movement, is poignantly conveyed by the Quartet.  Nothing short of this perfection from the Quartet would be suitable as accompaniment for the magnificent singing of mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato.  Mr. Heggie pays homage to Ms. DiDonato’s consummate mastery of Baroque and bel canto repertories by giving her coloratura passages and even a trill—which, as hardly needs to be articulated, she delivers with a display of technique so remarkable that these feats sound no more difficult than breathing.  More importantly, Mr. Heggie gives Ms. DiDonato music that calls upon every shimmering color in her voice, inspiring her to a performance of touching restraint and impeccable vocal warmth.  There is something very moving about hearing this great singer voice lines like ‘Last night, I went to sleep completely naked, / I pretended you were holding me’ in ‘Prelude; Rodin’ and ‘I understand. / I must be very still. / Thank you for remembering me’ in ‘Epilogue: Jessie Lipscomb visits Camille Claudel, Montdevergues Asylum, 1929.’  Memorable as Ms. DiDonato’s performances in the world’s opera houses are, her singing in Camille Claudel – Into the Fire is truly unforgettable.  Rôles like Rossini’s Rosina and Cenerentola are the natural habitat of a stage creature with Ms. DiDonato’s talents, but she is equally in her element in Mr. Heggie’s music.  It was usual for composers of Ms. DiDonato’s typical repertory to write specifically for the abilities of individual singers, but 21st-Century composers mostly compose generic vocal lines with ambitions of hearing their music sung as frequently as possible.  Camille Claudel – Into the Fire will surely resound with the unique qualities of many different voices in future, but Ms. DiDonato gives a performance that, like the sentiments of which she sings, is for the ages.

Pieces of 9/11: Memories from Houston is the centerpiece of here/after, and in this cycle Mr. Heggie and Mr. Scheer come as near to capturing a genuine glimpse into the American psyche in the hours and days following the events of 09.11 as any artists might hope to achieve.  The collective disbelief, anger, and fear of a nation is given profound weight in Mr. Scheer’s texts, nowhere more piercingly than in ‘Lessons.’

I was at school preparing my classroom / when the children arrived that morning.  / At 10am I took them outside for recess, / another teacher ran over to me and screamed: / “Is this what you people do?”

Mr. Scheer does not shrink from depicting the cruelty, bigotry, and hatred that were as much a part of the horror of 09.11 as the attacks themselves.  In response, Mr. Heggie does not eschew tonal harshness, and the cumulative power of Pieces of 9/11: Memories from Houston is considerably strengthened as a result.  There can be strange beauty even in unspeakable atrocities, but grief is rarely pretty.  The singers in Pieces of 9/11: Memories from Houston are supported by superb playing by flautist Dawn Walker, violinist Dawn Harms, guitarist Marc Teicholz, and cellist Emil Miland, an ensemble whose every note is aimed at the emotional core of the music.  Sopranos Ekaterina Gorlova and Ashley Traughber sing with lovely tone and an audible sense of occasion that the music deserves.  Soprano Talise Trevigne created the rôle of Pip in Moby-Dick in its 2010 Dallas Opera première, and her familiarity with the work of Mr. Heggie and Mr. Scheer tells in every phrase that she sings, both in Pieces of 9/11: Memories from Houston and Rise & Fall, in which she is accompanied by Mr. Heggie.  The silvery beauty of her timbre is very effective in both cycles, and the unaffected simplicity of her delivery of Mr. Scheer’s texts allows the incisiveness of the words to emerge in unexpected ways.  Ms. Trevigne is completely credible as the voice of ordinary people reflecting on what was likely the most harrowing day of their lives.  She is similarly adroit at artful traversal of the changing sensibilities in the course of a woman’s life in Rise & Fall, finding in Mr. Heggie’s vocal lines opportunities for deliciously feminine singing.  Baritone Nathan Gunn is also a strong presence in Pieces of 9/11: Memories of Houston, the ringing masculinity of his timbre contrasting persuasively with the sopranos’ voices.  Mr. Gunn matches Ms. Trevigne’s shrewd weighting of texts, his clear diction granting simple thoughts wider astuteness, and his hardy tones impart a sense of there being inherent strength even in the perceived weaknesses of sorrow and guilt.  Mr. Gunn also sings commandingly in A Question of Light, a fractured voyage of discovery inspired by works in the Dallas Museum of Art.  The candor of Mr. Gunn’s singing evinces a stirring undercurrent of wistfulness in Mr. Heggie’s music.  Both in Rise & Fall and A Question of Light, Mr. Heggie proves to be a peer of Benjamin Britten in the perspicacious accompaniment of his own music.

It is demonstrative of the merits of both the music and the performance that Friendly Persuasions: Homage to Poulenc is as striking in its shorter duration as the more substantial song cycles on here/after.  Accompanied by Ms. Wincenc on flute, Mr. Miland on cello, the composer at the piano, and José González Granero, principal clarinetist of the San Francisco Opera, Mr. Heggie’s and Mr. Scheer’s charismatic study of four individuals’—legendary harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, eminent baritone Pierre Bernac, childhood friend Raymonde Linossier, and poet Paul Éluard—interactions with the composer Francis Poulenc crackles with wit and the sort of tongue-in-cheek humor tinged with melancholy so characteristic of 20th-Century French art.  Landowska’s command in the first song to ‘for God’s sake, / finish my concerto’ is hilarious and delivered with disarming levity by tenor Stephen Costello, whose singing throughout Friendly Persuasions is enticingly warm-hearted.  Like Ms. Trevigne a veteran of Moby-Dick, in which he created the rôle of Greenhorn (Melville’s Ishmael), Mr. Costello drenches Mr. Heggies music with the same flood of honeyed tone with which he might infuse the music of Donizetti or Puccini.  His diction is admirable in both English and French, and his unpretentious delivery makes even the ‘fa la la las’ in the Bernac song lusciously enjoyable.  When darker sentiments intrude in the Linossier and Éluard songs, the latter sophisticatedly asserting the broken trust of World War II, Mr. Costello expands his tone invitingly.  Fascinating as Mr. Costello’s interpretations of these songs are in terms of drama, it is the sublime beauty of his voice that is the most appealing aspect of his performance of Friendly Persuasions.  Though they were not originally composed for Mr. Costello, these four songs are gifts to an intelligent lyric tenor, and after hearing Mr. Costello’s singing of them it is virtually impossible to imagine any other voice intoning them more immaculately.

Almost none of the song cycles composed in the 20th and 21st Centuries has joined the great Lieder of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, and Wolf in the standard repertory.  It might be argued that exquisite performances by important artists make stronger cases for pieces of music than they sometimes deserve, but this can be countered by the suggestion that, in the best cases, artists are prompted to the best performances of which they are capable by the virtues of the music before them.  The latter is emphatically true of the performances on here/after.  Each of the works included on this recording, expertly produced by Steve Barnett and engineered by Preston Smith, receives a standard-setting performance, but these are not topical works that, having been ideally performed and recorded for posterity, can be shelved and forgotten.  Singing as they do on here/after, Joyce DiDonato and Stephen Costello could make collegiate fight songs sound like High Art, but it is the music of Jake Heggie that draws from them performances that rival the Lieder recordings of Dame Janet Baker and Fritz Wunderlich.  This is not music for wallowing in dolorous memories: these are songs—and these are performances—that transform the most basic, the most searingly intimate convictions of individuals into expositions of the complex but often surprisingly comforting propensities of universal humanity through the refining fire of music.