November 09, 2017
(+++) LIVES IN SONG
Reynaldo Hahn: Songs. Zachary Gordin, baritone; Bryan Nies, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Andrew Maxfield: Choral Music on Poems by Wendell Berry. Rex Kocherhans, baritone; Salt Lake Vocal Artists conducted by Brady R. Allred. Tantara. $16.99.
Melody for Love. Olga Senderskaya, soprano; Bella Steinbuck, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
It is possible, sometimes, to trace much of a composer’s life through his music, particularly when the music is as heartfelt as the songs of Reynaldo Hahn (1874-1947). The new MSR recording of some of Hahn’s songs – mélodies, the French term for art song, to be more specific – provides a fine overview of Hahn’s work even though the presentation is not entirely chronological. Baritone Zachary Gordin has a warm, assured voice that fits the tone of Hahn’s songs well, and pianist Bryan Nies provides thoughtful, well-considered accompaniment that never moves far into the foreground (that was not Hahn’s style) but that offers a fine pairing for Gordin’s vocals. One thing the disc makes clear is that Hahn stayed firmly in the French classical song tradition throughout his life: although some of his works are decidedly more chromatic than others – notably the three-song cycle Amour sans ailes (“Love without Wings,” texts by Mary Robinson) of 1899 – songs written both beforehand and afterwards are firmly tonal and very much mainstream in sound. That is, throughout his life, Hahn was a firm adherent of tradition, somewhat in the same way that Saint-Saëns remained true to the roots of his early musical career even when later developments had taken music in other directions. There is great beauty in all the songs heard here, with Hahn showing a particular fondness for the genteel and emotionally stirring. The CD includes Rêverie (1888, text by Victor Hugo), the seven Chanson Grises (1887-90, Paul Verlaine), Trois Jours de Vendange (1891, Alphonse Daudet), Études Latines (1899-1900, Leconte de Lisle), L’Incrédule (1893, Paul Verlaine), Nocturne (1893, Jean Lahor), Dans la Nuit (1904, Jean Moréas), La Chère Blessure (1900, Augustina-Malvina Blanchecotte), L’Énamourée (1891, Théodore de Banville), À Chloris (1913, Théophile de Viau), and Fêtes Galantes (1892, Paul Verlaine) – a veritable catalogue of poetry by better-known and less-known French authors, all of whose works receive a kind of yearning, passionate setting in which the most frequent focus is unrequited love. There is a mixture of both beauty and melancholy in these short love songs, a sense of pervasive sadness that never, however, drifts into despair, because it sounds as if Hahn is reveling (if not quite wallowing) in the emotions the words evoke in him. There is, as a result, a certain sameness to the CD, an indication that Hahn did not progress very significantly in strictly musical terms during the quarter-century within which he composed these works. That in turn suggests that once Hahn found his musical place, biographically, he was content to remain within it and not challenge its boundaries.
Wendell Berry has clearly found his poetical place, too, and has connected with a composer who resonates to it: Andrew Maxfield. Berry’s words partake of spirituals, and of a very American notion of wide open spaces, and of a simple and straightforward faith that brooks no denial. The Maxfield/Berry collaboration on a new Tantara CD is a particularly happy one: just as Hahn seems totally in tune with the atmosphere and feelings of a particular set of French poets, so Maxfield seems entirely comfortable with channeling Berry’s words into music that complements them and allows singers to bring out their sentiments clearly and cleanly. There is a forthright assertiveness to this music that seems quintessentially American, a plainspokenness in the poetry that does not prevent it from transmitting feelings of joy, faith and uplift, that in fact enhances them all. Maxfield allows sections of the writing to remain entirely a cappella while providing spare instrumental backup in other parts of the material, resulting in a flow that feels entirely natural and is clearly guided by the words – which are set in a cadence that makes them easy to understand, especially when they are as well-pronounced as they are by the fine singers of the Salt Lake Vocal Artists under the direction of Brady R. Allred. As with Hahn’s music, that of Maxfield does have a certain sameness to it when the CD is played straight through, but within that similarity of sound there are many details of difference. For the Future, for example, opens with revival-style clapping as the chorus sings of tree plantings that bring birds both today and in the future; Stay Home is a sensitive setting for baritone of a pastoral scene; The Little Stream Sings, another pastoral poem, opens a cappella with divided voices and soon comes to sound like a hymn; The Seed Is in the Ground has a very similar churchlike sound and comes across as almost prayerful; and Whatever Is Foreseen Is Joy has some of the characteristics of both chant and Christmas carol. The other tracks here are I Love the Passing Light, Here Where the World Is Being Made, Not Again in This Flesh, A Gracious Sabbath Stood Here, and The Necessity of Faith – this last a particularly apt title that can stand not only for that particular poem and setting but also for the CD as a whole. There is a directness to the religiosity here, or rather to a kind of nondenominational spiritual stance that finds consonance and calm in nature and makes it possible for Maxfield to bring those same characteristics to his settings. Berry himself appears on the CD, too, and his readings of his verse are as straightforwardly communicative as is Maxfield’s music. Poet and composer seem made for each other.
Unlike the Hahn and Maxfield discs, which focus on composers and how they set poetry, a new MSR Classics release called Melody for Love focuses on a performer and how she interprets compositions by a variety of people. In fact, variety is the primary watchword for Olga Senderskaya’s recital with pianist Bella Steinbuck: no fewer than 13 composers are represented here, with the Russian language most common but several others (including Hebrew and English) heard as well. Some of the composers are quite well-known, if not always for this specific repertoire: there are five songs by Rachmaninoff (the only composer with more than a single track on the CD) plus pieces by Poulenc, Grieg, Dvorák, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Gershwin (a warmly inviting version of I Got Rhythm). The remaining names range from unfamiliar to almost completely unknown: Aleksey Machavariani, Fernando Obradors, Lenny Sendersky, Ernest Sanderson, Mordechai Zeira and Ernest Charles. The songs really have very little in common except, loosely, their focus on love – in a greater variety of forms than in Hahn’s songs. The recital serves mainly as a showcase for Senderskaya’s pleasant but sometimes rather thin voice, which soars effortlessly above the piano but sometimes seems rather characterless, making, for example, Grieg’s A Swan sound rather too much like Dvorák’s Songs My Mother Taught Me, which is heard immediately afterwards. Performer-focused discs are generally intended primarily as items for fans, with the music on them of less importance than the chance to hear the person presenting it. That is certainly the case here: none of the songs is especially outstanding, although listeners who are so inclined may enjoy comparing Rachmaninoff’s setting of Pushkin (Sing Not to Me, Beautiful Maiden) with Rimsky-Korsakov’s of Tolstoy (Not the Wind, Blowing from the Heights). Senderskaya seems fairly comfortable in all the languages here, and her singing is effectively communicative of the songs’ words if not always of their underlying emotional expressiveness. Listeners who have heard her before and are interested in her handling of a varied multilingual repertoire are most likely to appreciate and enjoy these selections.