May 03, 2018


Copland: Eight Poems of Emily Dickinson; Jake Heggie: Newer Every Day; Gordon Getty: Four Dickinson Songs; Michael Tilson Thomas: Poems of Emily Dickinson (selections). Lisa Delan, soprano; Orchestre Philharmonique de Marseille conducted by Lawrence Foster. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

Elgar: Violin Sonata in E minor; Mozart: Violin Sonata No. 32 in B-flat, K. 454; Debussy: Violin Sonata in G minor. Dominika Dancewicz, violin; Donald Doucet, piano. World on Wire Records. $14.99.

TORCH: Music of Ben Thomas, Brian Chin, Eric Likkel, Erik Satie, Manual de Falla, and Igor Stravinsky. Common Tone Records. $15.

     Although there are always personal elements in music-making – and in composing – there are some recordings that come across with a more strongly personal stamp than others. A clear example is a new PentaTone SACD with the title, “A Certain Slant of Light” – a phrase from a poem that begins, “There’s a certain slant of light,/ Winter afternoons,/ That oppresses, like the heft/ Of cathedral tunes.” The poem is by Emily Dickinson and is one of 22 Dickinson settings, by four American composers, on the disc. This is an unusual and welcome compilation, with virtually no poems repeated on the release and with the totality of the recording revealing nearly as much about Dickinson (1830-1886) as it does about the composers represented. Dickinson’s voice is considered uniquely American, one of the first such voices in poetry, yet her words and the music they inspired clearly have international resonance, as is clear from the finely honed, sensitive performances by American soprano Lisa Delan and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Marseille under Lawrence Foster. Eight Poems of Emily Dickinson (1948/1950) shows Aaron Copland in an interesting light. The settings are neither as accessible and tonal as his best-known works, nor as self-consciously modern as much of his less overtly popular music: they genuinely  support Dickinson’s language without overwhelming or commenting on it, giving Delan – who is highly sensitive to textual nuance – plenty of chances to bring forth the poems’ emotional strength. Copland did not have access to definitive editions of Dickinson’s poems, but this matters little in the context of the care and sensitivity with which he set the words. That Dickinson’s work can be handled in multiple ways is immediately clear when the disc moves on from Copland to the five poems in Newer Every Day (2014) by Jake Heggie (born 1961). Heggie finds acerbity, if not quite bitterness, in Dickinson’s words, and is especially effective at underlining the thoughts and feelings behind I’m Nobody! Who Are You? and Fame (one of two different poems on the disc with that title). The selection of specific poems to set is one aspect of the strong sense of personalization here. Four Dickinson Songs (2008) by Gordon Getty (born 1933) is in some ways an extension of Getty’s The White Election of 1981, which contains 31 Dickinson poems. The four here were orchestrated specifically for this recording, and three of the four are about death, including the famous Because I Could Not Stop for Death – which Copland also set, with slightly different words and in a version 50% longer than Getty’s. Getty engages directly with the poems here and does not hesitate to bring out their darker elements: if Copland’s settings are presentations of the poems, Getty’s are interpretations of them. The final offerings here are five selections from Poems of Emily Dickinson (2001) by composer/conductor Michael Tilson Thomas (born 1944), and again the choices say a great deal about composer and poet alike. Thomas introduces every poem with a kind of scene-setting orchestral opening, ranging from little more than a flourish to a kind of miniature tone poem. The poems heard here are all short, with Thomas choosing to keep two of them brief in presentation while expanding the other three – in one case, The Bible, to almost five minutes. This recording is quite clearly intended for listeners interested in Dickinson, in modern American music, and in art songs in general – an admittedly rarefied group. But the material is so compelling, and at the same time so variegated, that anyone who knows Dickinson’s poetry (even a little bit of it) will have an enriching experience by listening to it in this fascinating context.

     Context is also a matter of interest for the performances on a new World on Wire Records release featuring the Dancewicz-Doucet Duo. There are two sonatas here, by Elgar and Debussy, that date from the same time (1918 and 1917 respectively) and share a number of similar sensibilities, despite the considerable differences between the composers’ styles. They are separated on the disc, rather oddly, by Mozart’s K. 454 sonata of 1784, a work of very different provenance and style whose second-movement chromatic modulations look toward the future but whose overall mood is considerably lighter than that of the other works. The selection of these three pieces, placed in this order, quite clearly reflects the personal preferences of the performers, who bring warmth and considerable sensitivity to all the performances. The Elgar sonata is inward-focused and on the dark, melancholic side, somewhat along the lines of the composer’s Cello Concerto, written a year later. It is one of Elgar’s three minor-key chamber works of the same time period, along with the String Quartet and Piano Quintet, and repays careful listening and the sort of subtle, nuanced performance it receives from Dominika Dancewicz and Donald Doucet. Debussy’s sonata is likewise one of three related works – the others being those for cello and piano and for flute, viola and harp. But in this case there were supposed to be six pieces: Debussy’s death halted the creation of the full group. The violin-and-piano sonata is Debussy’s last major work, and his performance of its première, with violinist Gaston Poulet, was Debussy’s final public performance. Yet the work is scarcely autumnal in quality. Interestingly, it lacks a slow movement, the emotions that would normally be expressed through one instead emerging through the legato elements and generally long note values of the opening Allegro vivo, which does not come across as a traditional Allegro at all. The second movement is handled particularly well in this reading. An intermezzo marked Fantastique e legér, it seems to be part scherzo, part fantasia, with Dancewicz and Doucet showing themselves quite adept at contrasting and balancing the musical elements. Dancewicz has some very fine spiccato here. The finale is somewhat less engaging, not for any lack in the performance, but simply because the music itself never quite gels, having elements of perpetuum mobile and others that seem rather tacked-on, such as the fortissimo assertion of G major at the end. The main characteristics of the Elgar and Debussy performances here are warmth and understanding – and warmth predominates in the Mozart as well, but does not fit the music quite as well. The unusually slow introduction to the first movement, in which Mozart is also at pains to balance the contributions of the two instruments, sets the overall tone of the performance, which is broad and expansive and leans a bit too strongly in the direction of Romanticism – even the comparatively playful finale has a generally serious tone here. This reading does, however, help the Mozart fit well between the Elgar and Debussy sonatas. Listeners interested in these specific pieces and in hearing a duo with excellent skills at communicating – with each other and with an audience – will gravitate to this recording.

     The audience for a CD called TORCH, on the Common Tone Records label, is harder to discern. The works here are composed or re-composed by three of the group’s four members: Brian Chin (trumpets), Eric Likkel (clarinets), and Ben Thomas (vibes, percussion and bandoneón). The fourth person in TORCH is Steve Schermer (double bass). All the music on the CD has distinct jazz elements and an improvisational feel; much of it consists of very personal reimaginings of works by earlier composers, including Satie, de Falla and Stravinsky. Even when the material has been through-composed, it does not sound that way, which is part of the point: the group appears to be trying to blur the line between traditionally organized classical music (where what matters is what is on the page) and jazz (where the written score is only a starting point and the performers rather than the composer decide where the music goes and what impact it has). Many of the tracks on the CD have the usual trying-to-be-clever titles in which contemporary composers and performers often revel: The Surface of an Emerald, Yachtie, Andantinish, Larghetto-Land, Lento Bash, etc. The relationship of various pieces to their Satie/de Falla/Stravinsky inspirations is not particularly apparent or particularly relevant: the idea here is to move beyond the original compositions, not to dwell on or pay tribute to them. The actual playing on the CD is of very high quality, and some of the balance among the instruments is intriguing, with Thomas’s contributions particularly distinctive. TORCH seems to be an experiential group that would be intriguing to see and hear in person. But the material on this CD – although it will appeal to listeners who enjoy some rather unusual instrumental combinations and an overall feeling of jazziness – is not really distinctive enough to be involving beyond a comparatively limited audience. Of course, that may be the whole point of TORCH: to reach out to an “in crowd” of the group’s own making. Certainly the aim of bridging the gap between traditional notions of classical music and jazz is a good one, but it is scarcely new, and while this disc offers some pleasant listening, it is neither inspirational not musically compelling enough to suggest that it is the harbinger of a wide-ranging form of communication.

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