05 November 2022

RECORDING REVIEW: W. Alexander III, B. Britten, M. de Falla, R. I. Gordon, J. Heggie, J. Higdon, B. Moore, F. Poulenc, E. Smyth, & M. É. Valverde — NO CHOICE BUT LOVE (Eric Ferring, tenor; Madeline Slettedahl, piano; Lexicon Classics LC2206)

IN REVIEW: W. Alexander III, B. Britten, M. de Falla, R. I. Gordon, J. Heggie, J. Higdon, B. Moore, F. Poulenc, E. Smyth, & M. É. Valverde - NO CHOICE BUT LOVE (Lexicon Classics LC2206)WILLIE ALEXANDER III (born 1992), BENJAMIN BRITTEN (1913 – 1976), MANUEL DE FALLA (1876 – 1946), RICKY IAN GORDON (born 1956), JAKE HEGGIE (born 1961), JENNIFER HIGDON (born 1962), BEN MOORE (born 1960), FRANCIS POULENC (1899 – 1963), DAME ETHEL SMYTH (1858 – 1944), and MARI ÉSABEL VALVERDE (born 1987): No Choice But Love – Songs of the LGBTQ+ CommunityEric Ferring, tenor; Madeline Slettedahl, piano [Recorded in WFMT Studios, Chicago, Illinois, USA, 4 – 7 June 2022; Lexicon Classics LC2206; 2 CDs, 89:52; Available from Lexicon Classics, Amazon, Apple Music, Spotify, and major music retailers and streaming services]

The story of Western music encompasses many missing pages, the absence of which alters and in many instances perniciously diminishes understanding of the evolution of Art as both product and catalyst of cultural change. To some extent, it is possible to quantify the vast body of work lost to natural and human catastrophes, the Second World War alone responsible for the destruction of musical treasures ranging from irreplaceable manuscripts to priceless instruments. How, though, can the music that has been silenced by oppression be assessed and adequately lamented? Institutional assaults on the music of unique peoples like the Nazi Entartete Musik and Soviet suppression of dissenters’ work are well documented, but how many songs were never sung because the voices that yearned to give them life could not be heard?

The ravages of politics on culture are inescapable, but the part that culture itself can play in marginalizing communities and rejecting their artistic expression is frequently overlooked. More than a half-century after the Stonewall riots, LGBTQ+ individuals, their families and allies, and their artistic endeavors battle stigmas and prejudices perpetuated by popular culture, in some ways different but no less disenfranchising in 2022 than in 1969. Queer voices now sing with decreased fear of organized retribution, but some of their neighbors still refuse to listen, rejecting their work unheard based solely upon biased hate for its source. In the centuries before Jonathan Larson jolted musical theater with Rent and Rufus Wainwright composed an opera celebrating Hadrian’s love for Antinous, how many creators censored or ignored their own imaginations, knowing that their work was unwelcome in the cultures that inspired it?

Traversing a century of musical expression by composers of non-straight orientation, Lexicon Classics’ No Choice But Love - Songs of the LGBTQ+ Community engrossingly examines the ways in which queer artists shape and are shaped by the societies in which they live and work. The significance of this project and its dedication to telling the stories of lives subjected to bigotry and persecution demands uncompromising musical integrity and receives it from all participants in the recording, their work individually and collectively recounting their own narratives of emergence and acceptance. Since his 2021 company début as Pong in the iconic Franco Zeffirelli production of Puccini’s Turandot, tenor Eric Ferring has appeared at the Metropolitan Opera as Tamino in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte and as the Héraut royal and Arturo in Sir David McVicar’s and Simon Stone’s provocative new productions of Verdi’s Don Carlos and Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. Here allied with collaborative pianist Madeline Slettedahl, whose exemplary credentials as a nurturer of voices include lauded tenures with Houston Grand Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and Opera Theatre of St. Louis, Ferring acts as both raconteur and advocate, every word sung on these discs projecting unwavering immersion in the music and the intensely personal dramas of these songs and their contexts.

Each selection on No Choice But Love is performed with extraordinary emotional perspicacity, voice and piano melding into a single, singular interpretive force, but the performance of Ben Moore’s Love Remained with which the recital opens is uniquely poignant. With words drawn from a speech by Fort Worth city councilman Joel Burns, the first song, ‘Hold On,’ becomes an anthem for resilience in this reading, Ferring’s gleaming timbre extending the vocal line like an outreached hand seeking the grasp of a faltering friend. ‘Uncle Ronnie’ employs passages taken from a letter penned by Randy Robert Potts, grandson of evangelist Oral Roberts, and the momentous simplicity of the words permeates the tenor’s singing and the pianist’s playing. The text of the cycle’s titular song comes from a poem by baritone Michael Kelly, who sang the première of Love Remained in 2011. Ferring and Slettedahl use Moore’s music as the conduit for pointed delivery of Kelly’s verse.

The 1978 assassination of San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk was a pivotal event in the LGBTQ+ community’s slow progression towards recognition and redressing of injustice, and his words continue to foment understanding and tolerance in ‘Hope,’ the final song of Love Remained. Slettedahl’s gift for intuitively supporting singers’ phrasing was especially apparent, her playing begetting an atmosphere of indomitable belief in the promise of brightening horizons. The voice enthrallingly beautiful, Ferring articulates Milk’s words not with the mystical zeal of a prophet but with the guileless directness of a young man feeling acknowledged and represented. Meticulously crafted, Moore’s music amplifies the unifying message of the words, and Ferring and Slettedahl movingly commemorate Milk by disclosing the inherent melodiousness of his rhetoric.

Though an encouraging wave of progressivism has swept over the country in the Twenty-First Century, Spain in the decades between its civil war and the death of Francisco Franco was gripped by staunch conservatism that imposed spiritual exile upon artists like Manuel de Falla, whose orientations were held in necessary secrecy. Seeking ‘signatures’ of unseen identities in artists’ work often yields performances that focus more on the performers than on the creators, but Ferring and Slettedahl approach de Falla’s ‘Preludios,’ a setting of lines by Antonio de Trueba, with no goal other than faithfully serving composer and poet. Here and in the composer’s treatment of poetry by María de la O Lejárraga García, ‘Oración de las madres que tienen a sus hijos en brazos,’ both instruments achieve unerring stylistic synchronicity, their joint shaping of melodic progressions, harmonic shifts, and rhythmic transitions exploring the subtleties of the music with eloquence. In Ferring’s refined but piquant performances of these songs, de Falla’s true voice sings as it perhaps never could during the composer’s life.

In the past quarter-century, Jake Heggie has written works for some of America’s most renowned singers. The melodic allure and emotional cogency of his Friendly Persuasions, a tender homage to Francis Poulenc with texts by Gene Scheer, exemplify the traits that inspire singers’ love for Heggie’s music, and Ferring’s detailed traversals of these songs exhibit sagacious musical portraiture. Slettedahl engages in vivid characterization of her own in ‘Wanda Landowska,’ recreating the tempestuous atmosphere of the Polish virtuoso’s playing whilst Ferring voices Scheer’s words with dramatic thrust. Their partnership yields a performance of ‘Pierre Bernac’ in which the baritone, whose close connection with Poulenc began with the 1935 première of Cinq poèmes de Paul Éluard, would have recognized the musical integrity and attention to textual subtleties that he espoused. Tenor and pianist touchingly memorialize the writer’s brief life in ‘Raymonde Linossier,’ Heggie’s music suggestive of unrealized promise. In a sense, the last of Heggie’s Friendly Persuasions, ‘Paul Éluard,’ is the point at which No Choice But Love’s paths of understanding past and reshaping present discourses on gender identities and orientations intersect. The symbiosis of Heggie’s music and Scheer’s words envelops Ferring and Slettedahl, bringing the listener into the heart of Poulenc’s relationship with Éluard with unmistakable empathy.

Éluard’s poetry provided Poulenc with texts for the nine mélodies published in 1937 under the title Tel jour, telle nuit. Slettedahl’s ability to fashion evocative sonic tableaux in which Ferring’s voice thrives finds an ideal outlet in Poulenc’s writing for the piano in these mélodies, the musical language of which is sophisticated but direct. Ferring voices ‘Bonne journée’ with warmth and charisma befitting the text, and he and Slettedahl fastidiously observe the dynamic markings that sculpt the lines in ‘Une ruine coquille’ and ‘Le front comme un drapeau perdu.’ The French texts receive from Ferring vocal and linguistic inflections reminiscent of the singing of Henri Legay, the interplay of vocal colorations in ‘Une roulotte couverte en tuiles’ governed by flawlessly-placed consonants.

The depths of Poulenc’s responses to Éluard’s verses and the brilliance with which he echoed their cadences in music are apparent in Ferring’s and Slettedahl’s performances of each of the mélodies, but ‘À toutes brides’ and ‘Une herbe pauvre’ here wield splendid Francophone authenticity, the pianist’s phrasing possessing musical liaison and the singer’s idiomatic vowels spotlighting the composer’s uncommon ear for the innate musicality of words. To their stylistic acumen Ferring and Slettedahl add heightened expressivity in ‘Je n’ai envie que de t’aimer’ and ‘Figure de force brûlante et farouche,’ the vocalism elucidating felicities of Poulenc’s word settings. ‘Nous avons fait la nuit’ is sung with stirring expressivity, the voice’s inviolable evenness and sheen throughout the range communicating an intimate connection with music and text.

Extracted from a collection of three songs published in 1913, Dame Ethel Smyth’s ‘On the Road’ treats Ethel Carnie Holdsworth’s words with the immediacy and ingenuity that have spurred a recent revival of interest in the composer’s powerful opera The Wreckers. The sexual ambiguity that was so integral a component of Smyth’s personality can also be discerned in her music, and the account of ‘On the Road’ on No Choice But Love imparts ambivalence. Looking beyond the simplest meanings of the text, Ferring and Slettedahl interpret the song engrossingly, evincing both the vulnerability and the vanity of Smyth’s writing by executing the piece wholly without artifice.

Jennifer Higdon has earned the respect of many of America’s foremost exponents of Art Song by consistently deploying her considerable faculties as a composer of songs in arrangements of texts worthy of her music. This is indisputably true of her song ‘Lilacs,’ the words of which were drawn from Walt Whitman’s elegy for Abraham Lincoln, ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.’ Higdon’s musical recitation of some of the most familiar lines in American poetry is propelled by wonderfully emotive playing by Slettedahl, the pulse that she provides enlivening Ferring’s singing. As Hindemith did in his Requiem for those we love, Higdon extends the universality of Whitman’s words, giving Ferring and Slettedahl a platform from which they declaim the song’s paean to fallen idols and upended ideals with striking urgency.

With Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, his still-devastating survey of Depression-era poverty with haunting photographs by Walker Evans, and the autobiographical novel A Death in the Family, James Agee gave a voice to rural America, not only amplifying marginalized peoples’ cries for justice but also extolling the stark nobility of their struggles. Willie Alexander III’s music for Agee’s ‘Sure on this Shining Night’ simmers with reticent sensuality, stoked in this performance by Slettedahl’s flickering realizations of the piano figurations. Into this mood Ferring introduces his voice with great delicacy, the words sung on the breath and caressed by glistening tone.

As the title suggests, Mari Ésabel Valverde’s 2010 work To digte af Tove Ditlevsen draws upon a pair of poems by the eponymous author, whose work was as esteemed in Denmark during the Twentieth Century as that of her celebrated countrywoman Isak Dinesen. Enunciating the Danish texts suavely, Ferring voices Valverde’s settings of ‘Så tag mit Hjerte’ and ‘Mit hjerte er blevet borte’ radiantly, the voice rising with the melodic tides to understated but uplifting climaxes. Slettedahl’s playing of this music energizes its latent bel canto, interweaving harmonic strands with a gossamer touch that aggrandizes the composer’s utilization of the words as the driving force of the songs’ emotional development.

The first of Benjamin Britten’s five Canticles, his Opus 40 exegesis of Francis Quarles’s Seventeenth-Century paraphrase of text from the biblical Song of Solomon, was written in 1947 in memory of pacifist Dean of Canterbury Dick Sheppard. The eroticism of the words is distilled by Britten’s music—composed, as were many of his vocal works, for the voice of his partner, tenor Sir Peter Pears—into an intoxicating essence of subdued longing and the cathartic bliss of fulfillment. Britten’s writing for the piano recalls the viol consort music of Henry Purcell, and Slettedahl masters both the vestiges of Baroque form and the modernity, persuasively fusing the old and new aspects of the music. Vocally, Ferring’s perfo​r​rnance of Canticle I is marvelous, the difficult tessitura conquered without outward show of effort, and his interpretation of the piece is exquisite. There is no more moving passage on No Choice But Love than when Ferring sings ‘He is my Altar; I, his Holy Place.’ In these eight words and Ferring’s voicing of them is the soul of No Choice But Love: above all, the joys and sorrows of the LGBTQ+ community are those of every other community.

The work of few composers has been as indelibly influenced by the LGBTQ+ community’s heartbreaks as the vocal music of Ricky Ian Gordon. Choosing as his texts for Genius Child poems by Langton Hughes, Gordon amalgamates the post-Stonewall pursuit of acceptance with the Harlem Renaissance’s fight for social justice. The seventh of the ten songs of Genius Child, ‘Prayer,’ is sensitively sung by Ferring, the piercing uncertainty of his statement of ‘I do not know, Lord God, I do not know’ epitomizing the song’s representation of the continuing precariousness of progress. ‘Joy’ ends Genius Child equivocally, Hughes’s words and Gordon’s music grappling with the fickleness of happiness. Slettedahl plays magically, conjuring an ambiance of unsettling charm in which Ferring’s equally spirited and disspiriting singing of ‘Such company, such company, as keeps this young nymph, Joy!’ mesmerizes.

Commissioned by Ferring in 2021, Ben Moore’s ‘No Choice but Love’ utilizes an original text that recapitulates the themes that reverberate in every song to which Ferring and Slettedahl devote their talents. This valedictory fruit of their collaboration on this project juxtaposes the crystalline crispness of the pianist’s technique with the expressive elasticity of the tenor’s prevailing aesthetic. As in their performance of Love Remained, they animate Moore’s music with palpable personal and artistic accord. Ferring’s voice is that of every wayfarer, journeying to destinations to which there are no concrete directions. The ethos of this release, framed but in no way constrained by LGBTQ+ experiences, champions self-awareness and forbearance, but the listeners for whom this recording is intended are those who feel, regardless of what, how, and for whom they feel. Listening to this project with ears attuned to the glories of song and hearts open to emotions of startling honesty, there is no choice but love.