JULIANA HALL: Love’s Signature – Songs for Countertenor and Soprano—Darryl Taylor, countertenor; Susan Narucki, soprano; Juliana Hall and Donald Berman, piano [Recorded at Oktaven Audio, Mount Vernon, New York, USA, 17 – 19 September 2015 (Syllables of Velvet, Sentences of Plush and Propriety) and 7 – 8 August 2016 (O Mistress Mine); MSR Classics MS 1603; 1 CD, 71:00; Available from MSR Classics, Amazon (USA), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]
Had he endured it, Thomas Paine would surely have agreed that 2016 was a year to try men’s souls. Whether troubled by matters global or personal, by politics or unspoken perfidies, by losses widely mourned or unnoticed, few sensitive spirits were untouched by the year’s tribulations. It was a year in which Shakespeare’s likening in The Merchant of Venice of a lone candle blazing in the night to the gleam of a good deed in a naughty world shone with its own illuminating truth. In the same scene in The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare wrote of the man affected by life’s vices that ‘music for the time doth change his nature.’ The first quarter of 2017 has introduced new challenges and realities almost too fantastic to be believed—and, with them, pitifully little of the common sense that Thomas Paine identified as the hallmark of an enlightened free society. The power of music to change the natures of oppressor and oppressed is now more critical than ever before, the universal language of song needed to close the ever-widening gaps among neighbors and nations. When joining words with music, gifted American composer Juliana Hall perhaps does not consciously set out to create songs that close the circuits via which emotional currents flow from the individual to the universal, but the three song cycles recorded for MSR Classics’ new disc Love’s Signature reveal her extraordinary talent for crafting music that translates the meanings of texts into sounds that can be felt as well as heard. Whether handling the words of William Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, or Marianne Moore, Hall exhibits an uncanny faculty for amplifying the innate musicality of poets’ diction. Placed by MSR Classics’ engineering within an aural ambiance that recalls a small recital hall, the sound both intimate and ideally spacious, the performances that inscribe Love’s Signature upon the listener’s conscience restore faith in music’s still-potent force for positive change even in troubling times.
Written for countertenor Brian Asawa, whose untimely passing in April 2016 was a tremendous loss to the Arts community, O Mistress Mine is that rarest of achievements in Art Song: a true cycle of songs that both convey a cumulative narrative and are individually effective. Settings of texts by William Shakespeare, the twelve songs guide the listener along an emotional journey in which gentle humor and pathos thrive in one another’s company. Though a composer’s creative process is a marvel of nature that no mind but her own can fully comprehend, the songs of O Mistress Mine permit the listener to appreciate the meticulous craftsmanship of Hall’s work. The distinctive strains of ‘Greensleeves,’ presented in counterpoint to an original melody, and faint echoes of the lute songs of John Dowland provide aural glimpses of the musical environment into which Shakespeare and his works were born. Hearing all of the songs on this disc, it is apparent that Hall does not compose with the goal of steeping her music in a purposefully-concocted brew of modernity: rather, she follows the texts, responding to the inherent music of the words and conjuring sound worlds appropriate to each passage from an economy of means. Each of Hall’s notes has a purpose as clearly defined as that of each of Shakespeare’s words. The songs’ novelty is wholly organic, never contrived, and the composer perpetuates the American Art Song tradition of Beach, Barber, and Bolcom with music of ingenuity and integrity.
The performance that O Mistress Mine here receives from Hall and countertenor Darryl Taylor is a wonderful tribute to Brian Asawa, a subtle but intense exploration of music that would have perfectly suited both his voice and his musical personality. Though his basic timbre is very different from Asawa’s, Taylor shares his colleague’s uncompromising approach to song repertory. From the opening bars of ‘Lawn as white as driven snow,’ Taylor lavishes on the words from The Winter’s Tale articulation worthy of the stage of the Globe—an integral component of his artistry rather than artifice. With the opening bars of ‘O happy fair!’ (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), an astonishing transformation is achieved, revealing another facet of the singer’s chameleonic musical temperament. In some moments bringing to mind Russell Oberlin’s unforgettable timbre and in others sounding uncannily like a lyric mezzo-soprano in her prime, Taylor adapts his platinum-hued voice to the emotional temperature of each phrase. There is a sense of determination in his utterance of the sonnet ‘If love make me forsworn’ from Love’s Labour’s Lost that hints at blush-worthy sultriness, and the unaffected passion of his singing of Hall’s brilliant setting of ‘Who is Silvia?’ from Two Gentlemen of Verona enhances the impact of Shakespeare’s famous words.
Hall’s cycle takes its name from ‘O, mistress mine’ from Twelfth Night, and her dulcetly tuneful handling of the text makes the song the rightful centerpiece of the cycle. As she and Taylor deliver the song, it also assumes a position of prominence in the context of this disc, their partnership never bearing more alluring fruit than in this piece. ‘If music be the food of love’ and ‘Come away, come away, death’ are among the best-known passages in Twelfth Night, a gem among Shakespeare’s plays that remains too infrequently performed beyond England’s borders. Hall’s music preserves the kinship between the speeches without accentuating their similarities at the expense of each song’s individuality. Utilizing skills he has honed through operatic experience, Taylor masterfully characterizes the songs’ implicit narrator, bringing understated elements of the play from which they are drawn to his readings of the texts. The countertenor’s keen intelligence notwithstanding, the joys of his performances of ‘Take, o take those lips away’ (Measure for Measure) and ‘Tell me where is Fancy bred’ (The Merchant of Venice) are principally musical, his gift for matching every bar of Hall’s music with apposite tonal colors arrestingly employed. When music and text communicate darker thoughts, Taylor does not shrink from producing anguished sounds, and his performance of O Mistress Mine is thus all the more beautiful and emotionally powerful.
Taken from lines spoken by Stephano in The Tempest, the text of ‘This is a very scurvy tune to sing’ is delightfully piquant, but there is nothing distasteful about the performance that the song receives from Taylor and Hall. Perhaps it seems slightly ridiculous to state that Hall plays her own music splendidly, but this cannot be taken for granted. For all their troves of interpretive felicities, wartime broadcast recordings of Richard Strauss’s accompaniment of singers including Maria Reining and Anton Dermota in performances of the composer’s Lieder are littered with small mistakes, after all. Hall’s playing unites rhythmic precision with elasticity of phrasing, however: her pointed pianism seems neither goaded nor blunted by the singer. The psychological significance of the shifting harmonies of ‘Blow, blow, thou winter wind’ (As You Like It) is made apparent by the close collaboration between singer and pianist, Taylor’s vocalism soaring above the dynamic topography of Hall’s playing. Few passages in all of the Shakespeare canon match the serenity of ‘Fear no more the heat o’ th’ sun’ from Cymbeline, a quality gloriously captured in settings by Gerald Finzi and Roger Quilter. Hall is no less successful than her English counterparts at conveying the tranquility of the text, and her playing of the piano part is suffused with simplicity and depth of feeling, traits that Taylor answers with singing of focus and finesse. Anyone who doubts the health of the Art of Song should hear this performance. In it, composer, poet, singer, and pianist uphold the standards established when Schubert made songs of the words of Goethe and Heine and when Pears and Britten performed them.
Songs with prose texts are far fewer in number—and, by extension, importance—than settings of poetry, perhaps because patterns of thought and emotion are less compartmentalized in prose and therefore less conducive to musical treatment. Still in many ways an enigma to Twenty-First-Century readers and scholars, Emily Dickinson might be said to have embodied Rodolfo’s famous characterization of himself and Mimì in Act Two of La bohème: a poet by vocation, she was in her singular manner of living a personification of poetry. It is hardly surprising, then, that Dickinson’s correspondence is nearly as compelling as her verse. How fascinating it must have been to receive letters that issued from an intellect as sensitive, prophetic, and comprehensive as Dickinson’s! Composed in 1989, Hall’s Syllables of Velvet, Sentences of Plush utilizes excerpts from a selection of Emily Dickinson’s letters, the contents of which hold innumerable insights into the daily existence of both the poet and the woman. Hall’s kaleidoscopic music movingly evokes the spirit of the poet’s well-known lines, ‘This is my letter to the World / That never wrote to Me.’ This, Dickinson might have written, is her serenade to a world that, in her relative seclusion, she only partly knew but that she understood with extraordinary perspicacity.
Like Taylor and Hall in O Mistress Mine, soprano Susan Narucki and pianist Donald Berman are ideal interpreters of this music. Hall’s adaptations of Dickinson’s words in ‘To Eudosia C. Flynt’ are articulated as eloquently by the pianist as by the singer, and the composer’s profoundly sympathetic reactions to the poet’s stream of consciousness in ‘To T. W. Higginson’ are reflected in the crystalline sheen of the soprano’s singing, her artful phrasing complemented by the elegance of Berman’s playing. The pianist forges a path into the heart of ‘To Emily Fowler (Ford)’ that Narucki travels without one misstep of breath control, tonal production, or interpretive nuance. Examined from the perspective of today’s knowledge of details of Dickinson’s life, even her most innocuous banter can reveal layers of meaning that draw the reader into the poet’s very private but startlingly vivid world. Hall lures the listener into the specific atmosphere of ‘To Samuel Bowles the younger,’ and Narucki and Berman reward the attention with music making of the highest order. It is as surely Dickinson’s voice as Narucki’s that resonates in this traversal of ‘To Eugenia Hall,’ a song in which the like-surnamed composer discloses the best of her art as a musical poet. In the spirit of the title heroine’s paean to fidelity unto death in Douglas Moore’s The Ballad of Baby Doe being termed the ‘Leadville Liebestod,’ Hall’s pairing of ‘To Susan Gilbert (Dickinson) I’ and ‘To Susan Gilbert (Dickinson) II’ as the closing sequence of Syllables of Velvet, Sentences of Plush might reasonably be said to constitute an Amherst Anthem. Here, Dickinson seems to speak directly to the listener, not through a third party but with her own voice, demure but demonstrative. This is not decades-old literature dryly set to music but living art, born anew with each playing.
A product of 1992, Hall’s song cycle Propriety makes use of verses by American poet Marianne Moore (1887 – 1972), an artist whose scant renown among her countrymen is markedly disproportionate with the great quality of her work. As in their performances of Hall’s Dickinson settings, Narucki and Berman are expert exponents of these Moore songs. Narucki’s singing of ‘Mercifully’ resounds with enthusiasm for both words and music, an impression bolstered by Berman’s mercurial playing. With her vibrant setting of ‘Carnegie Hall, Rescued,’ Hall made a valuable contribution to the rescue of American Art Song. Here and in ‘Dream,’ the composer’s tone painting is remarkably attuned to the subtexts of Moore’s words, the composer’s sensibilities engendering songs in which text and music become veritably inseparable. One of the finest songs written in the last quarter of the Twentieth Century, ‘Propriety’ receives from Narucki and Berman a performance that realizes all of the piece’s potential to challenge and thrill. The cycle’s last words are entrusted to ‘Melchior Vulpius,’ and soprano and pianist pronounce them with complete conviction. Like Taylor, Narucki is not a songbird for whom beautiful but emotionally blank sounds are the ultimate goal—and neither, for that matter, is Hall. These are artists—and these are performances—that aim for the heart and the mind at once, and they do not hide behind polite façades when the truths of which they sing are ugly.
Art in any of its forms is never further than a single generation from extinction. Man’s nature is to fear, ridicule, and reject the unknown, all of which actions are seemingly far less strenuous than seeking to understand, accept, and embrace new concepts, cultures, and individuals. Fashions change, styles evolve, and affections wane, and in music these currents sometimes flow especially swiftly and devastatingly. Händel still breathed when almost all of his operas were interred in tombs of neglect, for instance, and Mahler never enjoyed in his own lifetime the universal recognition of his genius that subsequent decades have bestowed. Stasis is fatal to the survival of art, making the work of an artist like Juliana Hall crucial not only for the continued freshness of serious music but for its very life. Love’s Signature is a breath of life that fills the lungs with the air of song and the soul with the joy of recognizing a compositional voice of acuity and ingenuity. Insecurity, instability, and indecision abound, but the common sense of good music performed well still prevails. These are times to try men’s souls, but Juliana Hall has invented sounds that silence the din of discord.