September 07, 2017


Franck: Mélodies (Songs); Organ Works. Amy Pfrimmer, soprano; Thomas Kientz, piano and organ. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Robert Hugill: Songs. Johnny Herford, baritone; Anna Huntley, mezzo-soprano; William Vann, piano; Rosalind Ventris, viola. Navona. $14.99.

Fleeting Realms: Music of Bruce Babcock, Joyce Wai-chung Tang, Nora Morrow, David Maki, Craig Madden Morris, and Joseph Summer. Navona. $14.99.

     The many ways in which composers use the human voice reflect not only the composers’ own predilections but also the time in which they work and the purpose to which they want to put vocalizations – emphasizing the lyrical and expressive, the dramatic and declamatory, or some mixture. César Franck wrote only a handful of songs, 18 in all, and 13 of them appear on a new MSR Classics CD, sung with fervor and emotion by Amy Pfrimmer and accompanied with a fine sense of the music’s nuances by Thomas Kientz. The arrangement of the songs on the disc, though, leaves something to be desired. Franck’s songs (called mélodies in France) use texts by Victor Hugo, Sully Prudhomme and other well-known authors, but the songs’ means of expression changed considerably during Franck’s compositional career. It may be overly facile to divide many composers’ music into “periods,” but the division is apt where Franck’s songs are concerned. The earlier songs are sentimental, lyrical, and often show the influence of Schubert, whom Franck greatly admired: Souvenance and Robin Gray, both dating to 1842-43, are examples on this disc. Later songs are less elaborate and tend to be charming and pretty rather than emotionally profound; examples here are S’il est un charmant gazon (1857), Roses et papillons (1860), and Passez! Passez toujours! (also 1860), all to words by Hugo. Still-later songs are more chromatic and harmonically complex, examples here being Le vase brisé (1879) and Nocturne (1884). Pfrimmer is sensitive to the varying moods and approaches of the songs, but the helter-skelter arrangement of the CD does these works and Franck’s song output as a whole no favor. A chronological approach, or at least groupings of the earlier, middle and later songs, would have served the music better – as is, there is no particular reason for the songs to appear in the order in which they are given, and the insight they provide into Franck’s music is therefore lessened, although the works’ individual charms are not. The CD concludes with two wonderful organ pieces – Franck was a highly respected organist and was much admired by the great organ builder, Aristide Cavaillé-Coll. It is a Cavaillé-Coll organ on which Kientz performs here, offering the extended Pastorale in E from Six Pièces (a work actually dedicated to Cavaillé-Coll) and the even lengthier Fantaisie in A from Trois Pièces. These are warm, heartfelt works written by someone fully in command of the tonal colors of Cavaillé-Coll organs, and they sound quite beautiful in Kientz’s interpretations. The CD as a whole is revelatory of Franck’s sound world and expressivity, and the chance to hear his little-known songs as well as two of his fine organ works is most welcome.

     Contemporary British composer Robert Hugill (born 1955) uses the voice quite differently from the way Franck employs it, as a new Navona disc shows clearly. The Hugill song cycles here all have clear roots in songs of Franck’s time and before, but their structure is designed to enhance the narrative quality of the words rather than, as in Franck, the underlying emotional expressiveness. No matter what words he sets, Hugill is concerned above all with the clarity of the narrative, even adapting the usual format of art song for narrative purposes – for instance, in the sudden near-disappearance of the sound of the piano at the end of the song “To His Love” in the grouping called Four Songs to Texts by Ivor Gurney. This and two other sequences are performed with considerable sensitivity by baritone Johnny Herford and pianist William Vann; those other two sets are Winter Journey, to words by Rowan Williams, and Four Songs to Texts by A.E. Housman. Also here is a single, separate Housman song, When Summer’s End Is Nighing. And then there is a highly interesting six-song sequence in which Hugill calls not only for voice and piano but also for viola (played by Rosalind Ventris): Quickening, to texts by Christina Rossetti. Here the voice is that of mezzo-soprano Anne Huntley, and the combination of her vocal range with the similar “mezzo” range of the viola gives these songs a sound very different from that of the others on the disc. These are the most unusual settings on the CD, the presence of the viola lending the words a pointedness and immediacy that set them apart from the expressiveness of the baritone-and-piano songs. The viola trills in “Bitter for Sweet,” for example, seem almost to introduce an additional voice – an effect emphasized when the viola turns to a legato passage with piano accompaniment. Many of Hugill’s settings are on the conventional side, notably because of the way they minimize the piano’s role, using the instrument purely supportively rather than in partnership with the vocals. This is in line with Hugill’s emphasis on the meaning of the texts he sets. But Quickening is something different: the words and their emotions still flow freely and clearly, but here the instrumental elements are not merely accompaniment – they are significant contributors to the overall sound and content, with the result that this cycle offers a more satisfying experience than the other music on the disc.

     Only two works on a Navona anthology CD called Fleeting Realms include voice: lengthy songs by Joseph Summer called They Bore Him Barefaced on the Bier and He Took Me by the Wrist. Both take an approach somewhat akin to Hugill’s in Quickening, going beyond the traditional song structure of solo voice and piano. They Bore Him Barefaced on the Bier uses soprano (Kathryn Guthrie), tenor (Neal Ferreira), and piano (SangYoung Kim); He Took Me by the Wrist – a very extended work, lasting more than 13 minutes – includes soprano (Guthrie), bass (David Salsbery Fry), and piano (Kim). The pieces overstay their welcome: the singing is in fairly standard contemporary style, with wide leaps, declamatory passages, hints of Sprechstimme, and a certain level of intentional screechiness. But the use of two voices with piano, rather than the more-typical single voice, gives the settings dramatic intensity and creates a sonic environment in which there are, in effect, three ranges, including that of the piano, which here participates to a considerable degree in the communication. Unfortunately, it is hard to make much sense of the Summer pieces in the context of this CD: the disc as a whole has no central compositional style, no specific emotional attitude, no clarity of musical or emotional communication. The works stand on their own but mix at best uneasily. Summer’s song settings are the last two items presented. The disc opens with the mostly upbeat Irrational Exuberance by Bruce Babcock, for alto saxophone (Doug Masek), cello (David Speltz), and piano (Louise Thomas). Next is Snowy Landscape  by Joyce Wai-chung Tang, for piano (Lucie Kaucká), violin (Vít Mužík), and cello (Jiří Fajkus); this offers scene-painting that is pleasant enough, if not particularly distinctive. Then there are two works by Nora Morrow: Dawn for flute (Arielle Burke), clarinet in A (Michael Norsworthy), bassoon (Daniel Beilman), and cello (Kinga Bacik), and Luca’s Dream for solo vibraphone (Matt Sharrock). The first of these is another modestly Impressionistic work; the second is primarily mild and quiet, using the bell-like tone of the instrument to paint a fairly monochromatic sound picture. What follows the Morrow pieces is a work called Five Impromptus for Two by David Maki, which is for piano four hands (Kaucká and Martin Smutný); the main sense here is one of disconnection of each movement from the others and, in the main, of each pianist from the other one – although there are some neat back-and-forth elements from time to time, notably in the third impromptu. Also here is Crosscurrents by Craig Madden Morris, a work for cello (Nan-Cheng Chen) and piano (Kelly Yu-Chieh Lin). Here too the instruments and their players spend most of their time at cross-purposes, and there is little use of the warmth and emotional depth of which the cello is capable. The disc as a whole is – well, there is no real “disc as a whole” here, since the pieces, their instrumentation, their character and their performers differ so greatly from each other. There is no connection among these works and little connection between them – taken as a group – and listeners. Individual works here may be more or less effective for individual listeners, but it is hard to envision a wide target audience for material that differs to so great an extent in mood, structure, length, instrumentation and approach.

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