August 16, 2012

(++++) VOCALIZING


Beethoven: Complete Songs. Hermann Prey, baritone; Pamela Coburn, soprano; Leonard Hokanson, piano. Capriccio. $24.99 (3 CDs).

Carson Cooman: Choral Music. Cambridge Consonance conducted by Jeffrey Grossman. Gothic Records. $18.99.

      The 86 Beethoven songs just re-released by Capriccio show a rarely seen side of the composer: no storming of the heights here and not much profundity, but a great deal of what would later be called “salon music” and a real attempt to create works that could be played and enjoyed by aristocratic families’ amateur pianists and singers.  The songs were written as early as 1783 (when Beethoven was just 13) and as late as 1823, but Beethoven produced little in this genre after 1816, and even his latest songs show none of the late-Beethoven style associated with his string quartets and piano sonatas.  But if there is little “great” music here, and not all that much that is distinctively Beethovenian, there is a good deal of pleasurable material, and this three-CD set provides a rare opportunity to hear a more relaxed, less heaven-storming Beethoven than the one to whom listeners are far more accustomed.  Most of the songs are in German, but Beethoven also wrote songs in Italian, French and even, once, in English.  A few subjects recur: there is the six-song cycle An die ferne Geliebte (1816) and a separate An den fernen Geliebten (1809), and the ruins of the castle Merkenstein inspired a solo song in 1813-14 and a duet in1814-15.  And there are many songs on conventional topics, ranging from love to military matters.  There are 10 songs to texts by Goethe, one of which, Flohlied des Mephisto (1799), is a real gem; there is one song for which Beethoven wrote his own text (Lobkowitz-Kantate, 1797/1823); and there is the song in which the theme of the Choral Fantasy and finale of the Ninth Symphony first appears (Gegenliebe, 1794-95).  There are a few duets and a few songs with chorus, but most of the singing is done by Hermann Prey, with all the accompaniment by Leonard Hokanson, who worked with Prey for 25 years.  The recordings date to 1987-89; Prey died in 1998, Hokanson in 2003.  Prey’s voice was not in its prime for these recordings – he was almost 60 years old when he made them – but most of the songs do not make huge vocal demands, and even when Prey sounds strained (especially in the upper register), he is expressive, and attentive to the nuances of the individual works.  Pamela Coburn, who was only in her 30s at the time of these recordings, has a light, fresh voice that is not used often enough, and she is sometimes assigned songs that would seem more appropriate for a man (such as An Laura, 1790).  For his part, Hokanson makes no attempt to give the piano a larger sound or bigger musical role than Beethoven intended, although when he does have the chance to hold forth a bit – as in the introduction to Hochzeitslied (1819) – he makes the most of it. Capriccio provides texts for all the songs in their original languages, but unfortunately offers no translations either with the CDs or online.  And in a few cases, for no apparent reason, only some of the text is included, as in Sechs Gellert-Lieder (1802-03).  A complete set of Beethoven’s songs is nevertheless a delight to have, and if many of the songs tend to blur together either musically or topically, there are plenty that stand out, whether because of their texts, their lengths or their subject matter – indeed, one of the longest is Elegie auf den Tod eines Pudels (1787, the same year that Mozart wrote a poem on the death of his pet starling).  This is likely to remain the definitive Beethoven song collection for some time to come.

      It is far too early to speak of anything definitive in the vocal music of Carson Cooman, partly because Cooman was only born in 1982 and partly because he has already amassed a catalogue of some 600 works.  Cooman works in a variety of fields, from opera to orchestra to chamber music to vocal pieces; and within each type of music, he produces works of various kinds.  A new Gothic Records CD called The Welcome News focuses specifically on an hour of Cooman’s sacred choral music, which proves to be well constructed, easy to sing, suitably sincere, and not terribly distinctive stylistically – so this CD gets a (+++) rating.  Most of the 20 pieces here date to 2009 and 2010; the earliest, Faith, Hope, Love and Ad majorem Dei gloriam, are from 2003 and 2004, respectively.  Even those two show sureness and confidence in the vocal writing; indeed, all the works here have textural richness, and all are very well sung by Cambridge Consonance under Jeffrey Grossman.  The topics of sacred choral music are, by the nature of the material, quite limited, and the primary issue with this CD is simply that 20 pieces on similar subjects and in similar style, most of them just two or three minutes long, tend to blend together.  In fact, the last and longest piece here, O Lord, I Will Sing of Your Love Forever (2010), is one of the most interesting, simply because its length (almost 10 minutes) allows Cooman some developmental time and lets him show off the choral forces in a variety of ways.  But never too much showing off – that would not fit the material.  Cooman’s choral works on this CD will be of far more interest to amateur choristers and adherents of traditional organized religion than to more-casual listeners who might want to encounter an important young voice in 21st-century classical music.  Cooman’s instrumental music, of which a considerable amount is elsewhere available on CD, is a better introduction to his style and abilities.

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