22 June 2018

CD REVIEW: Leonard Bernstein — A QUIET PLACE (C. Boyle, J. Kaiser, G. Bintner, L. Meachem, R. Charlesworth, D. Belcher, A. Rosen, S. Humes, M. Skille, J. Tessier; DECCA 483 3895)

IN REVIEW: Leonard Bernstein - A QUIET PLACE (DECCA 483 3895)LEONARD BERNSTEIN (1918 – 1990): A Quiet Place [Edition by Garth Edwin Sunderland]—Claudia Boyle (Dede), Joseph Kaiser (François), Gordon Bintner (Junior), Lucas Meachem (Sam), Rupert Charlesworth (Funeral Director), Daniel Belcher (Bill), Annie Rosen (Susie), Steven Humes (Doc), Maija Skille (Mrs. Doc), and John Tessier (Analyst); Chœur et Orchestre symphonique de Montréal; Kent Nagano, conductor [Recorded in Maison symphonique de Montréal, Montréal, Québec, Canada, 17 – 19 May 2017; DECCA 483 3895; 2 CDs, 93:05; Available from Amazon (USA), iTunes, jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers; WORLD PREMIÈRE RECORDING OF SUNDERLAND’S EDITION]

The roads leading to the world’s important opera houses are strewn with the carcasses of musical vehicles scuttled before they reached their destinations, parts tried and discarded in the process of revising scores, and the abandoned ambitions of works that never realized their potential. Even among pieces that found success, there are plethoras of questions with no definitive answers. Should a mezzo-soprano or a tenor Idamante be preferred in Mozart’s Idomeneo? Should Bizet’s Carmen be performed with spoken dialogue or sung recitatives? Should Verdi’s Don Carlos be sung in four or five acts; and in French or Italian? Is Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess more at home in a Broadway theatre or an opera house? Now, nearly two decades after his death, how is Leonard Bernstein’s legacy as an operatic innovator fairly assessed?

Since its inception, qualms about the work’s theatrical viability have largely banished Leonard Bernstein’s opera A Quiet Place to the pages of academic studies of the composer’s œuvre, the few productions that the score has received in the thirty-five years since the première of its original form having mostly failed to meet the opera’s goals of further examining and refining the themes addressed in Bernstein’s 1952 opera Trouble in Tahiti. In the earlier work, audiences met Dinah and Sam, a couple bound in a complicated marriage that produced a son who was more a possession to be inventoried than a tangible manifestation of love. Integrating Trouble in Tahiti into its second act as a series of reminiscences, the three-act version of A Quiet Place that Bernstein conducted at the Wiener Staatsoper in 1986, pacing performances that were recorded by Deutsche Grammophon, opens with the aftermath of Dinah’s death in a car accident. The tyke in Trouble in Tahiti, Junior, was joined in the time between the operas by a sister, Dede, whose husband François was previously Junior’s lover. Each member of the family loves and is loved but has never learned to express feelings more intimate than frustration. Perhaps this is the crux of the opera’s difficulties: how can a composer who made lines as seemingly banal as ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’ not only integral to a piece’s dramatic continuity but also an indelible episode in American musical history effectively convey the sometime futility of words?

That he returned after an absence of thirty years to the dysfunctional family at the core of Trouble in Tahiti indicates that these people and their mostly self-inflicted struggles clearly captivated Bernstein. First devised by the composer and his chosen librettist, Stephen Wadsworth, in a single, two-hour act, A Quiet Place was a departure from the charm and romance of West Side Story and Candide. Considerably more convoluted than the straightforward love against the odds of West Side Story’s María and Tony, the relationships at the heart of A Quiet Place triggered profound responses from both composer and librettist, described in detail in Wadsworth’s insightful liner notes for the Deutsche Grammophon recording.

...we discovered a coincidence of need - to write about loss, grief, family mourning, and coming through tragedy together. Lenny had lost his wife, Felicia, only two years before, to cancer. I had lost my sister Nina only one year before, in a car crash. These things weighed heavily on our souls.
It is gross exaggeration to assert that the incarnation of A Quiet Place performed in Vienna in 1986 and recorded by DGG attempted to conflate the intimacy of Idomeneo with the grandeur of Götterdämmerung, but there is a certain legitimacy in the gist of the hyperbole: the impact of the stark simplicity of the distinctly American family dynamic that is the lifeblood of A Quiet Place was diminished by the necessity of matching the drama with music of auditorium-filling dimensions.

Recorded with exceptional sonic clarity in Maison symphonique de Montréal, this DECCA recording of A Quiet Place utilizes an arrangement of the score prepared by The Leonard Bernstein Office Vice President for Creative Projects Garth Edwin Sunderland, first performed in Konzerthaus Berlin in 2013 under the direction of Kent Nagano, whose conducting is a vital component of the success of this performance. Engendered by career-long acquaintance with the composer’s work, as well as his mastery of a related piece like Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites, with which A Quiet Place shares an emphasis on the Existential implications of interpersonal relationships, Nagano’s informed handling of Bernstein’s music lends Sunderland’s arrangement of A Quiet Place an aura of authority. Bernstein possessed one of the Twentieth Century’s best-trained ears for reimagining orchestral colors and textures, and Nagano’s management of the intricately-constructed tonal strands, spellbindingly executed by Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, unearths and enlivens the wealths of musical ingenuity and emotional power that the score wielded from the start of Bernstein’s and Wadsworth’s operatic alliance.

Reduced from the 150 minutes heard in Vienna in 1986 to ninety-three minutes, principally by excising flashbacks of Trouble in Tahiti from Act Two, the opera here moves at a fast pace that suits the episodic nature of the drama. Paralleling the work of their orchestral counterparts, the expert singing of Chœur symphonique de Montréal combines close adherence to the score’s pitches and rhythms with convincing conversational immediacy. The communicative effectiveness of Bernstein’s writing for groups of voices is enhanced by Sunderland’s treatment of the intersections among instruments and voices, and Nagano’s conducting spotlights subtleties always present in the opera but less evident in previous performances.

In the orchestral Postlude that ends Act One of A Quiet Place, Bernstein unleashed a torrent of the destructive but liberating familial angst that permeates Mozart’s Idomeneo, Verdi’s Rigoletto, and Wagner’s Die Walküre, and Nagano fully capitalizes on the music’s innate poignancy. Lyrical passages emerge from the manic pages of the score like lulls in storms of grief, given space in which to develop organically. A Quiet Place was unquestionably a masterful work at its 1983 première, and Sunderland’s intelligent restructuring of its words and music make it more accessible. With this performance, Nagano confirms that A Quiet Place is one of the most beautiful, unique, and moving operas of the Twentieth Century.

During his career, Bernstein was fortunate—far more fortunate than many of his contemporaries in musical theatre and opera—to enjoy collaborations with artists who understood, respected, and shared his ideals. Supporting rôles in this performance of A Quiet Place are brought to life by singers who exhibit qualities similar to those that defined the work of vocalists with whom Bernstein worked closely. Tenor John Tessier’s bel canto credentials might seem an over-qualification for the Analyst’s music in A Quiet Place, but his proper placement of vowels, rhythmic precision, and intonational accuracy are as welcome in Bernstein’s vocal lines as in Bellini’s. Similarly, the techniques of bass Steven Humes and mezzo-soprano Maija Skille are deployed with style and sensitivity in their portrayals of Doc and Mrs. Doc. The vocal acting of intrepid mezzo-soprano Annie Rosen amplifies the importance of Susie’s every word and note, lending the character added substance. Baritone Daniel Belcher’s Bill is also a fully-characterized depiction, sung with burnished tone and verbal lucidity. The Funeral Director receives from tenor Rupert Charlesworth a performance that gives the character unexpected dimensions of credibility and empathy. Each of these singers devotes to Bernstein’s music the vocal charisma and emotional honesty that it deserves.

The voice of tenor Joseph Kaiser is an instrument of finer quality than any listener might ever have hoped to hear in Bernstein’s music for François, the unknown variable of sorts in A Quiet Place’s family equation. First Junior’s lover and then Dede’s husband, François is the outsider who, despite his close involvement in their affairs, is able to discern the family’s shortcomings. Casting Kaiser in the rôle astutely intensifies the contrasts among François and both Junior and Sam, his higher, leaner timbre sounding almost fragile in comparison with the voices of his in-laws. In his every utterance in Act One, Kaiser is anything but feeble, however, his agile, attractive voice dominating the angular writing with ease except at the extreme top of the range, where effort is audible. Those hints of effort are put to apt dramatic use: like the family into which he inserted himself, François falls victim to his own insecurities, portrayed by Kaiser with touching verisimilitude. This is implicitly evoked in François’s Act Two aria ‘I’ve been afraid,’ passionately sung by Kaiser as a genuinely self-searching expression of endearment.

The tenderness that often glows in Kaiser’s vocalism calms the tempestuous egos that explode in the opera’s charged atmosphere. There is an alluring Mozartian fluidity in his account of the Act Three aria ‘Dear Loved Ones,’ the reading of Dinah’s suicide note that was originally assigned to Junior and is here the song of a Twentieth-Century Idamante brokering a delicate peace. Fulfilling his destiny as the catalyst for reconciliation and healing, Kaiser’s François launches his aria ‘Stop! You will not take another step!’ with the conviction of exasperation, but the sense that he is at last being heard softens the steel of his delivery. As the shared lover of troubled siblings, François is a character who can seem calculating and opportunistic, but, singing with gleaming tone and sincerity, Kaiser infuses François with nobility that figuratively provides the quiet place in which the drama achieves resolution.

It is not difficult to imagine Kaiser’s thoughtful François having been infatuated with the Junior of bass-baritone Gordon Bintner. Even when careening towards psychiatric cataclysm, this Junior is mesmerizing and, more consequentially, obviously redeemable. There is no denying that the Junior who bursts into Act One with the vehemence of a rabid animal exhibits few signs of reclaimable sanity, but Bintner evokes sympathy for the errant son by voicing his lines with a pervasive suggestion of inevitability, demonstrating that Junior’s rants are symptoms of illness, not true depravity. In the disturbing scene in which Junior disrupts his mother’s funeral with a shocking strip tease, Bintner adopts a garish but pitiable manner that suits the frenzied music and further exposes the fractures in the man’s mental state. By casting a singer with a strong, sinuous voice as Junior, his kinship with Sam is rendered both more believable and more meaningful.

The pathetic state of Junior’s mental health becomes sickeningly apparent in the vaudevillian scene in Act Two in which he invents a harrowing tale of an incestuous youthful relationship with Dede, mercilessly taunting François and goading his family to conflict. Bintner traverses this jazz-tinged music with flamboyance, purring his untoward accusations with something of Chet Baker’s sangfroid. None of the vocal effects that Bintner employs for dramatic variety distorts the singer’s pitch, but his characterization is immeasurably enriched: like Kaiser’s François, Bintner’s Junior, engrossingly sung, is an atypically plausible persona. Spanning the psychological metamorphoses of Act Three with acuity that culminates in a commanding performance of the aria ‘You see, Daddy, that death does bring some relief,’ Bintner persuasively evinces Junior’s ultimate transformation from bitter man mired in childhood inhibitions to better man on the path to recovery.

Building upon her colleagues’ erudite embodiments of their parts, soprano Claudia Boyle uplifts this performance of A Quiet Place with a portrayal of Dede that is capably sung—no small feat—and refreshingly free of cliché. The wide intervals and placement of tones without facile approach demanded by Dede’s music, much of which prefigures very different but equally difficult rôles like Ariel in Thomas Adès’s The Tempest and Pip in Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick, are unflappably supplied by Boyle. Her voice soars above the stave, but she also negotiates tricky passages in the lower octave with aplomb. Boyle voices Dede’s Act One arietta ‘Fantastic, great!’ with a piercing irony that is unmistakably limned by the slightly acidic edge with which she projects her tones. Dede plays the rôle of the more stable of Sam’s children (and François’s partners), but she is not without idiosyncrasies and indiscretions. Still, Boyle never allows the young woman’s flaws to obscure her basic humanity, her vocalism as reassuringly lovely when the text is thorny as when her words are comforting.

The trio with Junior and François and the scene in Act Two in which Dede at least momentarily connects with her father whilst donning one of Dinah’s dresses are pinnacles in Boyle’s performance, her voice arrayed in primary colors for the confrontational sparring and in pastel hues for intermittent tranquility. Occasional shrillness, dramatically appropriate, illustrates Dede’s awkwardness, especially in exchanges with François. The ambivalence of Sam’s and Dinah’s marriage is echoed in Dede’s relationship with François, and Boyle affectingly articulates her character’s indecision. The soprano sings the Act Three aria ‘Morning’ incisively, the text garnering as much attention as the music. Dede can be portrayed as a petulant shrew, but Boyle tames her, seizing each of the score’s inherent opportunities to chart the progress of her emotional evolution.

The husband and father at the center of the opera’s drama is portrayed in this performance with a myriad of temperamental contradictions by granite-voiced baritone Lucas Meachem. The first impression made by his Sam is one of unstinting strength, the core of iron in his singing introducing an element of stereotypical machismo into his depiction of the stern father. Meachem quickly divulges that Sam’s bravado is a coping mechanism that masks a vulnerability that is exacerbated by the father’s damaged relationships with his children. The character’s gruff exterior crumbles when platitudes are not adequate to express his feelings, and the baritone’s singing is most memorable when Sam’s hopelessness is most exposed. Throughout Act One, Meachem alternates boldly handsome singing with vocalism of unnerving sweetness, his account of the aria ‘You’re late’ a manifestation of Sam’s inability to grant his children access to his innermost emotions.

Grappling with the anger, denial, and uncomfortable truths forced to the surface by Dinah’s death, Sam begins Act Two with the aria ‘I wish I could sleep,’ delivered by Meachem with a wide spectrum of vocal colors ranging from darkest despair to glowing embers of self-recrimination. Here and elsewhere in this performance, the world-weariness of Meachem’s singing unveils a link between the small-scaled situations of A Quiet Place and the macrocosms of Wagner’s Ring. Singing with galvanizing resolve, Meachem reveals in Sam a suburban Wotan, his Fricka gone but still omnipresent and his children, not unlike Sieglinde and Siegmund, embroiled in futile combat against fate. In Meachem’s performance, Sam’s aria in Act Three, ‘Oh, François, please,’ is an outcry of desperation. Freud would likely theorize that, as an amorous partner for Dede and Junior, François is a stand-in for Sam, a father figure with whom they share a long-desired affection. In the wake of François’s rebuke and cathartic destruction of Dinah’s letter, the humility with which Meachem’s Sam welcomes François to the family proposes that he accepts and embraces his son-in-law as an equal. Though not every man can aspire to sing as Meachem does, his Sam is an Everyman, complicated in his simplicity and finally strongest when admitting his weaknesses.

Opera is an art that thrives on second chances. Many are the works that overcame unpromising and in some instances utterly disastrous premières to claim eventual success. Nonetheless, how many neglected honorable failures are there for every Carmen, and how many of those honorable failures might prove to be stage-worthy under the right circumstances? In terms of the consistent quality of Leonard Bernstein’s music, the very busy conducting schedule that undoubtedly deprived the public of works that never came to fruition was perhaps advantageous. It can be truthfully if not charitably said of some composers that their least-inspired music is good and their best work not markedly better, but Bernstein had little time for mediocrity. Artistically, A Quiet Place was never a failure, but, as the opera’s protagonists discover, redemption often requires compromise and cooperation. In this performance of A Quiet Place, all of the circumstances are right, and Bernstein’s final work for the operatic stage makes its second chance a triumph.

12 June 2018

June 2018 RECORDING OF THE MONTH: COME TO ME IN MY DREAMS – 120 Years of Song from the Royal College of Music (Dame Sarah Connolly, mezzo-soprano; Joseph Middleton, piano; Chandos CHAN 10944)

June 2018 RECORDING OF THE MONTH: COME TO ME IN MY DREAMS - 120 Years of Song from the Royal College of Music (Chandos CHAN 10944)FRANK BRIDGE (1879 – 1941), BENJAMIN BRITTEN (1913 – 1976), REBECCA CLARKE (1886 – 1979), THOMAS FREDERICK DUNHILL (1877 – 1946), CECIL ARMSTRONG GIBBS (1889 – 1960), IVOR GURNEY (1890 – 1937), MURIEL HERBERT (1897 – 1984), GUSTAV HOLST (1874 – 1934), HERBERT HOWELLS (1892 – 1983), JOHN IRELAND (1879 – 1962), ERNEST JOHN MOERAN (1894 – 1950), SIR CHARLES HUBERT HASTINGS PARRY (1848 – 1918), SIR ARTHUR SOMERVELL (1863 – 1937), SIR CHARLES VILLIERS STANFORD (1852 – 1924), SIR MICHAEL TIPPETT (1905 – 1998), and MARK-ANTHONY TURANGE (born 1960): Come to Me in My Dreams – 120 Years of Song from the Royal College of MusicDame Sarah Connolly, mezzo-soprano; Joseph Middleton, piano [Recorded in Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, UK, on 22, 23, and 25 September 2017, and 7 April 2018; Chandos CHAN 10944; 1 CD, 77:18; Available from Chandos, Naxos Direct, Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

Eulogizing his brother Robert in 1968, Senator Edward Kennedy spoke of the slain man’s penchant for first perceiving his world’s wrongs and then toiling to right them. A century before an assassin’s bullet ended the life of Robert Kennedy, another man of vision perceived a need and sought to fill it. In many ways a stranger in his adopted country and never allowed to forget it, Queen Victoria’s consort Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha nonetheless observed aspects of British society with rare perceptiveness and clarity. A Continental man exposed in his youth to Europe’s great cultural consortia, he recognized in music-loving Britain a lamentable lack of rigorous, state-supported tuition for aspiring professional musicians. In the months prior to his untimely death in 1861, the Prince Consort advocated the establishment of a national academy dedicated to the training of musicians, an initiative that came to fruition, albeit ineffectually, more than a decade later. Under the guidance of Sir George Grove and the patronage of Albert’s son, the eventual King Edward VII, the school that arose from Albert’s endeavors evolved into the Royal College of Music, which in 1883 admitted its first ninety-two scholars.

The first fourteen decades of RCM’s history have been guided by the leadership of ten directors, amongst whose ranks are esteemed musicians including Grove, Sir Hubert Parry, Sir George Dyson, Sir David Willcocks, and the present director, Colin Lawson. Even more awe-inspiring than surveying the accomplishments of this decury of directors is contemplating the voices that have echoed in RCM’s South Kensington corridors, both literally and figuratively. Reverberating in that storied space, the formative sounds of some of Britain’s greatest compositional talents forever qualify RCM as a shrine to the Art of Song. It is this legacy of nurturing the continuing vitality of English Song that this Chandos release celebrates by presenting works by some of the institution’s most distinguished alumni and faculty.

Spanning 120 years of repertory yielded by RCM’s commitment to educating and encouraging composers, Come to Me in My Dreams partners two of Britain’s most gifted interpreters of Art Songs, mezzo-soprano Dame Sarah Connolly and pianist Joseph Middleton, in performances that are as emotionally engaging as they are stylistically varied. From the lush late Romanticism of the College’s early years to the stark sounds of more recent decades, the music on this disc tunefully appraises RCM’s influence on more than a century of Britain’s musical life. Here singing with exemplary but unpretentious diction and impeccable musicality, Connolly could frankly make a musical history of pickling in the home counties compelling. Performing a programme of Art Songs that might have been composed specially for her, she honors RCM with a recital that rivals the finest Lieder recordings in the discography.

Whether lamenting man’s inconstancy as Purcell’s Dido or communicating the grim forebodings of Wagner’s Brangäne and Fricka, Connolly’s voice is a richly-textured instrument in which subtlety and sublimity meld organically with splendor and majesty. Aspects of her performances evoke memories of the work of some of her most venerable fellow interpreters of repertory in English: Helen Watts’s straightforwardness, Dame Janet Baker’s stylistic versatility, Rosina Raisbeck’s innate theatricality, and Jan DeGaetani’s verbal flair, for example. In the context of the selections on Come to Me in My Dreams, however, Connolly’s singing brings to mind the performances of none of her operatically-inclined colleagues as vividly as it recalls the vocalism of Lancashire-born popular singer Cilla Black. Like Black at her best, Connolly wields a sensitive but stern femininity that is used as neither an excuse nor a weapon. Reinforced by the probing lucidity of Middleton’s pianism, the mezzo-soprano’s singing on this disc is wonderfully robust, prissing and purring altogether banned from her musical demeanor. In Connolly’s and Middleton’s handling, the merits of the music on Come to Me in My Dreams are revealed to be gratifyingly consistent: commendably little disparity in quality separates the most familiar songs from their least-known comrades.

The musical odyssey of Come to Me in My Dreams begins with Muriel Herbert’s ‘The Lost Nightingale,’ here performed by both voice and piano with none of the artifice that can ruin even well-sung performances of this expertly-crafted piece. Interpreted by Connolly and Middleton with disarming simplicity, John Ireland’s ‘Earth’s Call’ is legitimately a ‘sylvan rhapsody,’ the singer’s delivery of the vocal line emerging from the accompaniment with the brilliance of rays of sunlight penetrating a forest canopy. Ireland’s ‘The Three Ravens’ is also given a reading of poetic savvy. ‘The Cloths of Heaven’ from Thomas Frederick Dunhill’s The Wind among the Reeds should be in the repertory of every singer capable of performing it with the sentimental sincerity and glamorous tone with which Connolly limns its eloquent melody. All of Herbert Howells’s music also deserves to be performed more frequently, but Connolly and Middleton make an especially strong case for greater exposure for ‘Goddess of Night.’ The hauntingly perceptive use of text that Howells cultivated in his English-language Requiem, Hymnus Paradisi and the motet Take Him, Earth, For Cherishing is evident throughout the two minutes of ‘Goddess of Night,’ heightened in this performance by the singer’s nuanced but natural enunciation of the vowels that drive the music.

Frank Bridge’s studies at RCM bestrode the turn of the Twentieth Century, and his music linked the past of Beethoven, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky with the future of Rubbra, Britten, and Tippett. Like many of his confederates in what Howells described as the ‘cosy family’ of RCM, song often provided Bridge with respites from the horrors of the Great War and professional frustrations. Bridge’s ‘Where she lies asleep’ and ‘Come to me in my dreams’ offer the listener solace, too, the atmosphere of each song awakened in the hearer’s imagination by Connolly’s and Middleton’s vivid musical colloquy. The composer’s setting of Humbert Wolfe’s ‘Journey’s End’ is a harrowing acceptance of finality made piercingly personal by the effortless candor of the performance on this disc. Gustav Holst’s rendering of ‘Journey’s End,’ the ninth of the twelve songs that constitute his Opus 48 (H 174), is marginally lighter in mood but no less moving than Bridge’s song. Middleton plays Holst’s music adroitly, and Connolly’s phrasing highlights the psychological depth of Holst’s reaction to the text.

Among the composers whose music is performed on Come to Me in My Dreams, Benjamin Britten’s name and songs are likely the most familiar to listeners beyond Britain’s borders. Dating from 1947, Britten’s Opus 41 A Charm of Lullabies is hardly the best-known of his song collections, however, and it is heartening to observe that, nearly forty-two years after the composer’s death, there are still worthwhile products of his creativity awaiting widespread discovery. Virtually all of Britten’s songs are tonally ambiguous, some of them deceptively so, but they share a near-obsessive commitment to textual integrity. The words of ‘A Cradle Song’ are articulated as crisply in Britten’s music as in Connolly’s singing. This composer’s writing for the piano seldom follows predictable harmonic paths, but Middleton’s playing, whilst reveling in the music’s ingenuity, divulges the inner logic that is the foundation of each of these songs. He and Connolly perform ‘The Highland Balou’ and ‘Sephestia’s Lullaby’ with the thoughtfully-conceived interaction of chamber musicians, and their traversal of ‘A Charm’ winningly imparts the wry humor of the brusque text. There is a disconcerting ambivalence that defies easy explanation at the heart of ‘The Nurse’s Song,’ not overtly threatening as in ‘A Charm’ but vaguely disquieting, but vocalist and accompanist avoid imposing an interpretive agenda on the song. Here recorded for the first time, Britten’s ‘A Sweet Lullaby’ and ‘Somnus, the humble god,’ both contemporaneous with A Charm of Lullabies, are beguilingly sung, Connolly’s claret-hued timbre bathing the songs in the crepuscular glow that the music invokes.

Its pervasive melancholy transformed into genuine pathos by the emotional honesty of Connolly’s and Middleton’s performance, Sir Arthur Somervell’s ‘Into my heart an air that kills’ from his 1904 adaptation of verses from A. E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad is unexpectedly one of the most affecting songs in this recital. Likewise, listeners for whom Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry’s name summons notions of stodginess may find this performance of ‘Weep you no more, sad fountains,’ one of the six songs in his fourth set of English Lyrics, revelatory. Voice and piano are deployed with keen comprehension of the relationship between words and music. ‘A soft day’ from Sir Charles Villiers Stanford’s A Sheaf of Songs from Leinster (Opus 140) is also sung with assurance, Connolly voicing the line ‘The hills wear a shroud of silver cloud’ with particular radiance.

Cecil Armstrong Gibbs’s 1934 ‘Sailing Homeward’ is another song in which Connolly’s and Middleton’s cooperation produces an ambience of contemplative resignation that lends an aural dimension to this defining niche of the English psyche. The warmth of the mezzo-soprano’s tone as it caresses the strains of E.J. Moeran’s ‘Twilight’ is stimulating, lifting the words off of the page enchantingly. Like many of the pieces on this disc, the songs of Ivor Gurney are too-little-known gems of the repertory, and the three of his songs offered on Come to Me in My Dreams sparkle dazzlingly in these performances. Superlatives are divisively subjective, but how could opposition to the assertion that Gurney’s ‘Thou didst delight my eyes’ is one of the finest songs in the English language be justified? That anyone who has heard Connolly’s voicing of the song could deny the expressive impact of the music or the artist is unthinkable. She and Middleton are no less effective in disclosing the virtues of ‘The fields are full’ and ‘All night under the moon,’ prominent among which is a directness of feeling reminiscent of the Zwei Gesänge of Brahms’s Opus 91.

Rebecca Clarke dedicated her setting of ‘The Cloths of Heaven’ to Gervase Elwes, the tenor who was also the dedicatee and first performer of Vaughan Williams’s On Wenlock Edge. Differences of Fach notwithstanding, Elwes would undoubtedly delight in recognizing Connolly as an artistic legatee, and her singing of Clarke’s music qualifies her as an heiress of the most exalted traditions of Lieder singing of any country and generation. Composed for a 1962 Old Vic production of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Sir Michael Tippett’s Songs for Ariel make use of some of the play’s best-known lines. Connolly’s and Middleton’s approach to ‘Come unto these yellow sands’ is appropriately spritely but unflappably focused. In her singing of the doleful ‘Full fathom five,’ a deluge of heartbreak surges in the line ‘Those are pearls that were his eyes,’ uttered with complete control of rhythm and dynamics. Wings flutter convincingly in Middleton’s playing of the accompaniment to ‘Where the bee sucks,’ and there is an enigmatic whiff of diffidence in Connolly’s voicing of the closing statement of ‘Where the bee sucks, there suck I’—the work of a great actress who also happens to sing splendidly.

Composed for Connolly in 2016, Mark-Anthony Turnage’s ‘Farewell’ constitutes an apt resolution for Come to Me in My Dreams, both as a representative of current trends in British songwriting and as a summation of the musical development that has transpired in the years since the first RCM class occupied their desks. As in all of the selections on this disc, Connolly’s ascents to the top of the stave are projected with a dramatic soprano’s surety, but the inviolable solidity of her tone and the accuracy of her intonation throughout the range are the true hallmarks of her work on this recording. Britain and her music are rarely cited as bastions of spirited expression, but they possess profusions of passion unlike but as earnest and poignant as those of their Continental counterparts. It is perhaps gilding the lily to suggest that Come to Me in My Dreams has been 135 years in the making, but it is no exaggeration to avow that Dame Sarah Connolly’s and Joseph Middleton’s performances of these songs were wholly worth the wait.

09 June 2018

CD REVIEW: Benjamin C.S. Boyle, Jake Heggie, Jennifer Higdon, Lori Laitman, & Glen Roven — REMEMBER (Tobias Greenhalgh, Steven LaBrie, & Jarrett Ott, baritones; Roven Records RR051218)

IN REVIEW: Benjamin C.S. Boyle, Jake Heggie, Jennifer Higdon, Lori Laitman, & Glen Roven - REMEMBER (Roven Records RR051218)BENJAMIN C.S. BOYLE (born 1979), JAKE HEGGIE (born 1961), JENNIFER HIGDON (born 1962), LORI LAITMAN (born 1955), and GLEN ROVEN (born 1962): RememberTobias Greenhalgh, Steven LaBrie, & Jarrett Ott, baritones; Michael Brofman, Adam Nielsen, Glen Roven, & Danny Zelibor, piano [Roven Records RR051218; 1 CD, 54:00; Available from Roven Records, Naxos Direct, Amazon (USA), and major music retailers]

Once upon a time, there was a land in which remarkable baritone voices like those of Richard Bonelli, John Charles Thomas, Lawrence Tibbett, Leonard Warren, Robert Merrill, Cornell MacNeil, and Sherrill Milnes seemed to emerge from her ponds, prairies, and peaks like inexhaustible natural resources. That land remains, extending from Atlantic to Pacific in the embrace of Canada and Mexico, but the skepticism of the listener whose experiences belie the richness of that baritonal endowment is a predictable consequence of acquaintance with the recent state of baritone singing in America’s great opera houses and concert halls. Declaring the Great American Baritone an endangered species slipping ever closer to extinction is understandable, but, no matter how convincing the evidence to the contrary may be, Mark Twain’s quip about the rumor of his demise having been greatly exaggerated might also be applied to baritone singing in the United States.

The international standards of baritone singing, particularly in Verdi repertory, have arguably been continually spiraling downward since Leonard Warren’s untimely death during a 1960 Metropolitan Opera performance of Verdi’s La forza del destino, but the totemic American baritone is not a chimera. Physiologically, it is true that the baritone range is the most common territory inhabited by male voices, but voices such as those of young American baritones Tobias Greenhalgh, Steven LaBrie, and Jarrett Ott are anything but common. With Remember, this compelling disc on his own label, lauded composer, conductor, pianist, poet, and producer Glen Roven provides a platform via which these three gifted singers connect with listeners via intelligently-sung, affectionately-accompanied performances of Art Songs by some of America’s most renowned contemporary composers. Intelligence is commendable, not least owing to it being in sadly short supply, but the brightest mind achieves little in the service of mediocre vocal cords. Mediocrity finds no home on this disc.

Possessing a voice of genuine beauty allied with interpretive instincts that have garnered acclaim from savvy critics and audiences in locales including Aix-en-Provence, New York, and Vienna, Tobias Greenhalgh is at the forefront of today’s ranks of memorable baritones. The comfort and vocal elasticity with which he transitions among musical styles recalls the singing of another American baritone, the under-appreciated Brent Ellis. Like Ellis, Greenhalgh can thunder as convincingly as he whispers, his timbre’s attractiveness never compromised. Accompanied with finesse and flexibility by Michael Brofman, Greenhalgh here performs Roven’s Four Surreal Songs—a title aptly reminiscent of that of Brahms’s Opus 121 Vier ernste Gesänge—with a broad range of vocal hues that embolden the subtleties of Paul Éluard’s words. As set by Roven and sung by Greenhalgh, these texts reveal seldom-seen facets of Éluard’s creative personality that are uncannily appropriate for the first husband of the notorious provocateuse who would eventually enter history on the arm of her second husband, Salvador Dalí.

Motivated by Brofman’s firm but fluid rhythm foundation, Greenhalgh delivers ‘Arc of Your Eyes’ with unapologetic sentimentality, the golden patina of the voice suiting the shimmering colors of the text. The unforced immediacy of his singing of ‘Ecstasy’ establishes a core of serenity amidst the song’s surging emotions. To borrow Hemingway’s conceit, baritone and pianist make ‘The Bull’s Ear’ a moveable feast that lures the listener to the table with a tantalizing array of musical flavors. Roven’s compositional idiom is at its most entrancingly efficacious in ‘End of Monster,’ in which the composer’s responses to Éluard’s words create their own unique sonic poetry. Brofman’s playing fashions a foundation upon which Greenhalgh crafts a reading shaped by a precise balance between music and drama. The song’s metaphysical subtleties are manifested with poignant directness, but this is a performance of a song, not a poetry recitation, and the baritone never ignores the composer’s ingenuity. The listener cannot ignore the unaffected beauty of Greenhalgh’s singing.

Utilizing texts by Paul Valéry [a fittingly operatic surname!], composer Benjamin C. S. Boyle created in his Le passage des rêves a song cycle that rivals the finest efforts in similar form by Erik Satie, Henri Sauget, and Francis Poulenc. Boyle’s musical language is often ambiguous, harmonies conveying as much emotional complexity as his exquisitely-crafted melodies, but the poet’s words are not obscured by the composer’s musical imagery. The duality of words and music that is the nucleus of Boyle’s songs is embodied by the interpretive interdependency of Steven LaBrie and Adam Nielsen, their work on this disc bringing to Boyle’s music the spirit of Benjamin Britten’s and Peter Pears’s still-potent recordings of Schubert Lieder.

LaBrie’s gifts of tonal opulence, strength throughout his range, and expressive sincerity qualify him as a markedly effective exponent of recent repertory: how wonderful he could be as the libidinous Steward in Jonathan Dove’s Flight and is sure to be as Charlie Mitchell in San Diego Opera’s March 2019 production of Jake Heggie’s Three Decembers. His bold, burnished singing of Boyle’s songs is ideally partnered by Nielsen’s eloquently electric pianism. From the first bars of their evocative, resoundingly musical traversal of ‘La dormouse,’ the ethos of this performance is evident: identifying and analyzing the intellectual core of each song, LaBrie and Nielsen inspire one another to make emotional transitions audible. Their singing—and Nielsen’s playing sings as palpably as his colleague’s vocalism—of ‘Les pas’ further refines the principals of musical communication that their collaboration epitomizes, the interaction between voice and piano treated as a candid dialogue. Similarly, the pair’s account of ‘Le sylphe’ pulses with poetic intensity, the layers of meaning inherent in both words and music insightfully elucidated. Even amidst the bounty of wonderful music making on Remember, LaBrie’s and Nielsen’s performance of ‘À l’aurore’ is special: there are palpable feelings of personal vindication and addressing a new day with hope that validates the necessity of darkness. The surety of Nielsen’s touch contrasts with the improvisatory malleability of LaBrie’s phrasing, energizing music, text, and emotion with unerring equilibrium.

The interpretive symbiosis with which LaBrie and Nielsen ignite Boyle’s songs proves to be no less incendiary in their performance of Lori Laitman’s The Joy of Uncreating. Not unlike the textual integrity of her operatic setting of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, the composer’s uses of Joan Joffe Hall’s words in the songs on this disc are strikingly perceptive, her music dissecting the heart of the words with a tonal scalpel that pares away artifice. LaBrie and Nielsen cut into the flesh of ‘Illumination’ with unhesitant strokes, piercing the song’s torso with a gleaming blade sharpened on the backs of the words. Here and in ‘The Joy of Uncreating,’ they navigate the music’s paths through the texts with magnetic expressive dexterity.

Like Greenhalgh and LaBrie, Jarrett Ott is an artist whose performances are events in the best and truest senses of the term. With a voice that is at once sinewy and sonorous, Ott has the ability to disguise biting ferocity with slyly-employed finesse. There is a kind of irresistible danger in his singing; the song of a siren whose hypnotic vocal snares cannot be escaped. Singing as he does on this disc, with a pianist of Danny Zelibor’s caliber supporting his work, resistance is unimaginable. Both in his performances on Remember and in his work in general, Ott cogently bridges the distances that separate listeners from composers and poets, facilitating empathy that transcends the mechanics of singing.

Few American composers of any generation have dedicated their efforts to exploring the expressive capacities of the human voice as consistently or as persuasively as Jake Heggie has done, and his settings of verses by Vachel Lindsay in Of Laughter and Farewell exemplify the wit and discernment that are the hallmarks of his Art Songs. Ott and Zelibor approach ‘Under the Blessing of your Psyche Wings’ with the combination of concentration and spontaneity that the music demands, presenting the song as a delicate but forceful episode. Likewise, baritone and pianist immerse themselves in Heggie’s musical evocation of riparian reverie in ‘By the Spring, at Sunset,’ the interplay of music and words handled with sophistication.

Complementing the literary sensibility of Heggie’s songs, Jennifer Higdon’s treatment of Walt Whitman’s ‘When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d’ blossoms with the shifting moods of the poetry, despair and anger melding with quiet resilience and an inextinguishable but almost reluctant optimism. Ott’s singing infuses warmth into Whitman’s elegiac strains, capitalizing on Zelibor’s propulsive realization of Higdon’s writing for the piano. Like their Remember colleagues, Ott and Zelibor foster a musical discourse into which the listener is invited, not as an observer but as a participant.

Greenhalgh, LaBrie, and Ott join their voices above the composer’s sensitive accompaniment to close Remember with a thrilling, touching performance of Roven’s song of that name. As in their individual assignments, the three baritones enunciate the text, in this case a lovely selection by Christina Rossetti, with clarity and comprehension. Roven’s music is a logical destination for the journey traveled in the songs on the disc. With these performances of songs by five of today’s most eminent American acolytes of the muse of Art Song, three masterful singers inaugurate a renaissance of the iconic American baritone. For that alone, this is disc worth remembering, but its most memorable virtue is uniformly, flawlessly superb singing.