June 20, 2013


Tchaikovsky: Souvenir de Florence; Schoenberg: Verklärte Nacht. Emerson String Quartet (Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, violins; Lawrence Dutton, viola; David Finckel, cello) with Paul Neubauer, viola and Colin Carr, cello. Sony. $11.99.

Gordon Getty: Usher House. Christian Elsner, tenor; Etienne Dupuis, baritone; Phillip Ens, bass; Lisa Delan, soprano; Orquestra Gulbenkian conducted by Lawrence Foster. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

The Hours Begin to Sing—Songs by Jake Heggie, David Garner, John Corigliano, Gordon Getty, Luna Pearl Woolf and William Bolcom. Lisa Delan, soprano; Kristin Pankonin, piano; Matt Haimovitz, cello; David Krakauer, clarinet; Maxim Rubtsov, flute. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

     The Emerson String Quartet’s new CD for Sony is entitled “Journeys,” and it represents the culmination of a journey for the quartet itself: the quartet has had the same personnel for more than 30 years, but this disc is its final release with original cellist David Finckel, who has left to journey on to other musical projects. The “Journeys” title, of course, is not intended to refer to Finckel’s departure but to the music, which is an interesting juxtaposition of works composed a decade apart but generally thought of as being very different. The CD also represents a journey of the quartet into some uncharted waters (this is its first-ever recording of a work by Schoenberg) and some little-traveled ones (it has not recorded anything by Tchaikovsky since the 1980s). What will matter to listeners, though, is little of the reasoning behind the disc’s title and much about the works and how they are performed. As usual, the Emerson ensemble is excellent both individually and as a group, handing off themes and blending harmonies adroitly and clearly fulfilling the conversational elements of chamber music – in which additional participants Paul Neubauer and Colin Carr are fully engaged. As is less usual, the music as performed here is handled in a way to emphasize the similarities between what Tchaikovsky wrote in 1890 and what Schoenberg wrote in 1899, and to downplay the stylistic and harmonic differences between the pieces. To that end, Tchaikovsky’s external journey to Italy is played in a way that emphasizes the dissonances within the work and gives it a kind of nervous, almost skittish energy. Schoenberg’s journey, which is inward rather than outward, gets a warm and Romantic interpretation that is certainly valid but is at odds with the cooler approach, looking ahead toward the composer’s later works, that this piece usually receives. It is almost, but not quite, as if the performers are playing up Schoenbergian hints in Tchaikovsky and Tchaikovskian revenants in Schoenberg. Yet the intention is not to turn the works into something different from what they are – it is to showcase the elements within them that are parallel and indicative of the times in which the two sextets were composed. These are thoughtful and genuinely interesting performances that are not really first choices for either work but are more in the nature of reconsiderations, re-viewings, that will be of particular interest to listeners already familiar with the music and wanting to experience it in some different ways.

     Gordon Getty’s opera Usher House is a different way of experiencing Edgar Allan Poe’s story, “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and this too is an interesting and in some ways unexpected journey – in this case, into Poe’s thinking and the way it meshes, or fails to mesh, with that of Getty (born 1933). The moody, introspective, epicene qualities of Poe’s tale would seem less a match for Getty’s rather expansive temperament than for the approach of, say, Debussy, who did in fact write a libretto for an opera based on this story but who never completed the music. Debussy was so sensitive to the nuances of Poe (whose work he knew in Baudelaire’s translation) that he planned to have the three male singers in his work all be baritones – a powerful indication that Debussy saw them (the narrator, doctor and Roderick Usher) as three sides of the same personality. Whether Debussy would have carried through this intention is of course unknown. What is known is that Getty is not the only contemporary composer fascinated by this Poe tale: Philip Glass wrote an opera based on the same tale in 1987. Getty’s work, whose staged première is scheduled for next year, is not so much true to Poe’s tale as it is based upon it. Getty turns the story into one of good vs. evil, making Poe himself the narrator, adding ghostly ancestors and a Faustian bargain, and wrapping the whole tale in a kind of gothic warmth that is quite foreign to Poe’s writing and lacks Poe’s anticipatory psychological profundity. Getty’s approach does, however, hark back in some ways to the tale that influenced Poe himself: E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “Das Majorat” (“Primogeniture”). Whether the Hoffmann echoes are deliberate or not, they are there. Getty writes well and effectively for the voice, and his primarily tonal orientation allows him to use dissonance effectively to make points about disturbance and disorientation – of which there is quite a bit here. The expansion of the story, the involvement of elements not included by Poe, removes some of the sense of claustrophobic inevitability from the tale, but Getty offers, in compensation, some well-considered, atmospheric orchestral writing that pulls listeners into a skewed and disturbed world that, if it is less haunting than Poe’s, is as effective in its own, different way. Usher House will not be to the taste of many opera lovers or Poe lovers, but it is a legitimate translation of Poe’s story to the stage and has the advantage of being very well sung by all the soloists and played with appropriate lugubriousness and portentousness by Orquestra Gulbenkian under Lawrence Foster. And it is recorded in top-notch SACD sound. Unlike Getty’s earlier Plump Jack, which uses Shakespeare’s actual language but deviates rather too much from the spirit of the Falstaff plays to be wholly engaging, Usher House succeeds on its own terms and proves both theatrically and musically satisfying – although it should not be, and will not be, mistaken for what Poe actually wrote.

     Listeners who are particularly impressed by Lisa Delan’s handling of the role of Madeline in the opera, and want to hear more of her in songs by Getty and other American composers, will enjoy The Hours Begin to Sing, in which Delan does a lovely job with Getty’s Four Emily Dickinson Songs, whose sensibility is worlds apart from that of Poe even though the poets were near-contemporaries and both obsessed with death. Getty’s settings make an interesting contrast with Four Cabaret Poems by William Bolcom (born 1938) – and Delan’s handling of these very different works says a great deal about her vocal sensitivity and versatility. Bolcom’s songs channel but do not reproduce the spirit of Kurt Weill, and Delan is comfortable both with their nuances and with their torch-song elements. The other works on this very well-recorded SACD are of somewhat less interest, resulting in a (+++) rating despite the high performance quality. Three Irish Folksong Settings by John Corigliano (born 1938) are pleasant and unobtrusive enough, although the music is not Corigliano’s most distinguished. Rūmī: Quatrains of Love by Luna Pearl Woolf (born 1973) has something of the exotic in its origins but is rather ordinary in execution. The Vilna Poems by David Garner (born 1954), while pleasant enough, are too slight to merit their greater length (21 minutes) than anything else on the disc. From the Book of Nightmares by Jake Heggie (born 1961) is more successful and actually goes rather well with Getty’s Poe-based opera, although it was not intended to; but its effects are on the expected and rather unsurprising side. It is a line from the poetry of Galway Kinnell, used in Heggie’s work, that gives this disc its title. This recording is certainly a fine showcase for Delan, who is very well supported by pianist Kristin Pankonin and the other musicians here. But the music itself, although impressive from time to time, does not generally sustain particularly well; nor does most of it cause listeners to sit up and take notice in the way that some American songs do – such as those of Charles Ives.

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