May 22, 2008


Charles Wuorinen: Ashberyana; Praegustatum; Fenton Songs I and II; Ave Christe of Josquin; Josquiniana. Soloists and Da Camera of Houston conducted by Charles Wuorinen and Sarah Rothenberg. Naxos. $8.99.

Jake Heggie: For a Look or a Touch; Gerard Schwarz: In Memoriam; Lori Laitman: The Seed of Dream. Soloists and Music of Remembrance conducted by Mina Miller. Naxos. $8.99.

      Modern American vocal music, whether by well-known or less-known composers, is something of an acquired taste – and not one that all listeners will be eager to acquire. The expressiveness of some works is impressive, while that of others is more overdone in a heart-on-sleeve way. And while some vocal works seek wide-ranging themes, others are tied to specific recent events and emerge as political statements.

      The apparently unendingly prolific Charles Wuorinen retains his trademark wit and intellect in his vocal works and produces some fascinating ones as a result. The new Naxos CD of his music includes both vocal and instrumental pieces. Ashberyana (2004) is a setting of four poems by John Ashbery for baritone (Leon Williams in this recording) and an ensemble of trombone, string quartet and piano. The vocal lines are impressive, set mainly as Sprechstimme, and, as usual with Wuorinen, the instrumental treatment is sensitive. Wuorinen conducts this work himself, and the pianist is Sarah Rothenberg, music director of Da Camera of Houston – who also plays Praegustatum (2005), a short intermezzo-like piece for piano solo, written by Wuorinen for conductor James Levine. Fenton Songs I dates to 1997 and Fenton Songs II to 2002. Wuorinen actually set the first set of James Fenton’s poems twice – this version is the one for soprano (Lucy Shelton), violin, cello and piano. Here the vocal and instrumental parts seem to intertwine – the voice becomes part of the overall sound picture but does not necessarily dominate it. The four poems in the second set are more intense and topical: two are called “Tiananmen,” which includes such lines as “you can’t tell where the dead have been and you can’t tell when they’ll come again,” and “The Ballad of the Shrieking Man,” which concludes, “we’re all together when the roof falls in.” The voice dominates here against the same instrumental complement as in the earlier Fenton set. And then there are Wuorinen’s “remakings” of the music of 15th-century composer Josquin des Prez – one for solo piano (Ave Christe of Josquin, 1988) and one for string quartet (Josquiniana, 2002). These works provide welcome musical respite from some of the harshness elsewhere on the CD, since they are tonally grounded and mostly respectful of their model – although Wuorinen has fun at the end of Josquiniana with a treatment of the song “El Grillo” (“The Cricket”), which in the original tells how the cricket sings purely for love but hints that human singers would really like to be paid.

      The nonprofit organization Music of Remembrance has a specific cause – to maintain the legacy of artists who died during the Holocaust – and so it is no surprise that the works on this ensemble’s new CD (its third for Naxos) are somber and respectful. Whether they are successful in purely musical terms will be a matter of opinion. Jake Heggie’s For a Look or a Touch (2007) is a dramatic song cycle based on a true story of gay teenage lovers sundered by the Holocaust. Librettist Gene Scheer helps Heggie contrast Berlin in the days before World War II with the same city under the brutality of Nazism. Intended as a plea for remembrance, the work – which features baritone Morgan Smith and actor Julian Patrick – has effective moments, but it comes across as a little too obvious and self-righteous. Conductor Gerard Schwarz’s In Memoriam (2005) is quite a contrast. It is an instrumental work for cello (Julian Schwarz on this CD) and string quartet, written in honor of cellist David Tonkonogui (1958-2003), who played within and as soloist with the Seattle Symphony under Schwarz’s direction. In a straightforward meditative and melancholic way, the work makes a fine elegy for the Russian-born cellist, who died at age 45 of multiple myeloma. Lori Laitman’s song cycle The Seed of Dream (2004) returns listeners to the world of the Holocaust in a setting for baritone (Erich Parce), cello and piano of five poems by Abraham Sutzkever, written when he was a prisoner in the Vilna Ghetto. Both the words and Laitman’s music offer a mixture of intensity and lyricism, as if to affirm that if there is anything that can overcome cruelty – in the long run if not the short – then it is art. All three works on this CD are world première recordings and worthy additions to the repertoire; but none is such a standout that it seems likely to become a staple of musical programming.

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