November 21, 2018


Handel: Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day. Cassandra Lemoine, soprano; Benjamin Butterfield, tenor; Bach Choir of Bethlehem and Bach Festival Orchestra conducted by Greg Funfgeld. Analekta. $18.99.

Scott Perkins: Whispers of Heavenly Death; Holy Sonnets of John Donne; Riddle Songs; Dogen Songs; Spring and All; Summer Songs; Three Songs for Autumn; Soir d’Hiver. Julia Mintzer, mezzo-soprano; Jamie Jordan, soprano; Dashon Burton, baritone; Zachary Wilder, tenor; Éric Trudel, piano; Helen Park, flute. Navona. $14.99.

Elizabeth Vercoe: Butterfly Effects for flute and harp; This is my letter to the World for voice, flute, and piano; Elegy for viola and piano; Herstory I for soprano, piano, and vibraphone. Peter H. Bloom, flutes and piccolo; Mary Jane Rupert, harp and piano; D’Anna Fortunato, mezzo-soprano; Patricia McCarty, viola; Ellen Weckler, piano; Boston Musica Viva (Cheryl Cobb, soprano; Randall Hodgkinson, piano; Dean Anderson, vibraphone; Richard Pittman, director). Navona. $14.99.

     John Dryden’s 1687 “A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day” is more than a celebration of the saint’s day, November 22. It is a tribute to the creative power of music, the “music of the spheres” that arranges the heavens in orderly fashion and gives meaning to the cosmos. So grandiose a notion, not necessarily meant to be taken 100% literally, gave Handel the basis for a 1739 work that continues literally to resonate today, the Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day. Substantial in length although less extended than an oratorio (it lasts about 50 minutes), the work, which is in two parts, is brightly festive and evocative in its succession of instrumental and vocal elements, the latter for two soloists and chorus. Dryden invites some rather obvious tone painting (“soft complaining flute,” “sharp violins”), and Handel duly provides appropriate segments; but the main attraction of this choral work is the grand way in which it creates a sense of the drama of music’s place in the universe – both in the time of creation and in a distant future when, as Dryden’s last line has it, “music shall untune the sky.” Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day is on the obvious side, musically speaking – there is nothing here akin to Haydn’s chaos at the start of The Creation, for instance – and it is, after all, occasional music, created to serve a particular purpose even though, for today’s audiences, it goes well beyond honoring St. Cecilia. Led by Greg Funfgeld, the Bach Choir of Bethlehem (Pennsylvania) and Bach Festival Orchestra give a rousing, upbeat and suitably straightforward presentation of Handel’s music: Funfgeld’s strong sense of rhythm and pacing keeps matters moving at a good clip without actually rushing anything, and both the orchestral playing and choral singing are first-rate. The two soloists are good, although not quite top-level: Cassandra Lemoine sings and emotes well, but her diction leaves something to be desired (a more-obvious flaw because the Analekta CD’s booklet does not include Dryden’s words); while Benjamin Butterfield has something of the opposite issue, pronouncing everything clearly but tending to be a bit rough and overly loud in his solos. On the whole, though, this is a fine performance whose overall forthright and direct expression fits Handel’s music well and presents it with a pleasant combination of drama and a modest but welcome dose of lyricism.

     Drama and lyricism are present as well on a new Navona CD featuring no fewer than eight song cycles by Scott Perkins. The vocal writing here is about as different from that of Handel as it is possible to be, and the songs – all for voice and piano, plus flute in one cycle – are set by turns tonally, atonally, in falsetto, in Sprechstimme, and with all sorts of vocal techniques that go far beyond anything used in the 18th century. Yet Perkins manages to be extraordinarily creative without spending a lot of time being self-indulgent. He accomplishes this largely through his choice of texts – and also through integrating the piano parts (played wonderfully throughout the disc by Éric Trudel) into the cycles’ fabric, making the piano and pianist into full-scale participants rather than simply accompanists. The variety of poems set by Perkins is truly extraordinary. The most exceptional cycle of all, one whose daring is genuinely gripping, is called Riddle Songs (for baritone) and uses anonymous texts from the 10th-century Exeter Codex – in the original Old English. Just pronouncing this language, which is akin to Old High German, is difficult enough; creating music that accurately reflects the differing moods of these riddles – riddling being a major poetic form of the time – is even harder. Perkins manages to solve the, ahem, riddle of producing modern music for thousand-plus-year-old words with inventiveness that borders on the astonishing. His jazz/blues handling of a riddle about a key has to be heard to be believed, but is no more inventive in its way than his tiny little setting (less than 30 seconds) of one about ice. These songs are clever, yes, but they are more than that: they are genuinely revelatory in showing how an almost unknown language of long ago can be combined with a purely contemporary musical idiom to produce works to make 21st-century listeners sit up and take notice. Nothing else on the disc is quite this good, but several other cycles come close. Holy Sonnets of John Donne (for soprano) is intense, inward-looking and emotionally trenchant. And Dogen Songs (for tenor), using English translations by Brian Unger and Kazuaki Tanahashi of poems by the 13th-century Japanese Zen monk, Dogen Zenji, shows that modern minimalism can coexist surprisingly well with that of eight centuries ago. Somewhat less interesting is Whispers of Heavenly Death (for mezzo-soprano), to words by Walt Whitman: the settings are fine and sensitive, but Whitman’s poetry has been set so often that Perkins’ version seems like just another in a long series. The remaining four cycles here treat the seasons of the year, although they were not specifically conceived as a “cycle of cycles.” Spring and All (for tenor) uses verses by William Carlos Williams, in one of which, “The Right of Way,” Perkins handles the concluding lines with particular aplomb. Summer Songs (for soprano) is a cycle of Robert Louis Stevenson and includes a particularly operatic “Summer Sun” setting. Three Songs for Autumn (for baritone, and including flute to add atmosphere) uses words by Lia Purpura. And Soir d’Hiver (“Winter Evening,” for mezzo-soprano) intriguingly offers four French-language poems by four different poets: Émile Nelligan, Rainer Maria Rilke, Louis-Honoré Frechette, and Paul Verlaine. The scene-painting in the autumnal and wintry cycles is a bit more obvious and a bit less inventive than Perkins’ work elsewhere, but it is always effective and very sensitive to the cadences and nuances of the poetry. This is, on the whole, a remarkable disc, showcasing a composer with very substantial talent in the art-song genre.

     Voice is used in two of the four works by Elizabeth Vercoe on another new Navona CD – and one of the two, This is my letter to the World, uses flute and piccolo as well as mezzo-soprano and piano. This six-song cycle is, however, much more ordinary in sound and techniques than the cycles by Perkins. The wind accentuations appear just as would be expected, and the declamatory settings are quite typical of contemporary handling of poetry. The poems themselves are by one of the favorites of modern composers, Emily Dickinson, and while there is nothing out of place in the settings, there is nothing especially distinctive, either. The other vocal work here, Herstory I, has a more intriguing instrumental complement, adding a vibraphone to soprano voice and piano. Its six songs are by four women poets: Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich, Sylvia Plath, and Pam White. The cycle’s intention, as is clear from its title, is to present the life experiences of women – but Vercoe’s way of doing so, which includes sounds ranging from near-screeches to near-whispers, is overly melodramatic, although when it does gibe with a poem’s words, as in Plath’s “Mirror,” it is very effective indeed. On the whole, Vercoe is more interesting on this (+++) disc in the non-vocal pieces. The seven-movement Butterfly Effects is not slavishly imitative of butterflies’ appearance or flight, although there is some of that. What Vercoe does here is set the harp against four different flutes: piccolo, bass, alto and concert. This creates a sound world that differs significantly from movement to movement but still has an underlying similarity that fits neatly with the notion of various very different-looking insects all being butterflies. The multiple techniques called for in the flute-playing further enhance the notion of differences-within-overall-similarity. The fourth work on the CD, Elegy, is the shortest and the most conventionally scored, for viola and piano. It is also, in many ways, the most effective piece on the disc. Vercoe uses the viola’s emotive capabilities and its ability to combine some of the virtuosity associated with a violin with some of the warmth of a cello to good effect, producing an inward-looking work that, interestingly, becomes increasingly tonal as it develops. It is as if the emotions being displayed by the viola require the aural comfort of tonality to achieve satisfactory resolution. Vercoe has some interesting ideas, both vocally and instrumentally, even though her presentation of those ideas on this CD is rather uneven in its approach and efficacy.

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