in a Time of Darkness: Music of Vaughan Williams, Ulysses Kay, Bach, Wayne
Barlow, George Walker, and Haydn.
Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Beau Fleuve. $15.
by American Composers: Edouard Lippé, Wayland
Rogers, Richard Pearson Thomas, Gwyneth Walker, Lee Hoiby, John Duke, Patrice
Michaels, and Leonard Bernstein.
Michelle Areyzaga, soprano; Dana Brown, piano. 4Tay Records. $20.
The title of the new Beau Fleuve recording of the Buffalo Philharmonic
Orchestra under JoAnn Falletta is supposed to help listeners focus on music as
emotional uplift during the multi-year COVID-19 pandemic. The intent is good
and much of the playing is, too, but the underlying concept is on the strange
side. By and large, the music heard here is not the sort that brings shafts of
light to an undeniably dark time. Bach’s Brandenburg
Concerto No. 6, for example, is the darkest of the set, dropping violins
altogether and therefore giving the viola-led music a sense of seriousness and,
yes, darkness – a better choice to proffer light in a dismal time would have
been No. 2, with its prominent trumpet, or No. 5, with the brightness of its
harpsichord. Similarly, Haydn’s Symphony No. 44 is known as the “Trauer,”
meaning sorrow, grief or mourning – certainly an apt feeling in a
pandemic-ravaged world, but not exactly one designed to bring anyone light and
comfort. Symphony No. 48, known as “Maria Theresia,” dates to the same time
period and leaves a far more festive impression, and there are plenty of other
Haydn symphonies that could more readily counter a pandemic mood – which No. 44
mostly reflects. The Bach and Haydn performances here are fine, but neither of
these composers brings out the best in Falletta or her orchestra: this is not
an ensemble dedicated to period performance and not one especially sensitive to
some of the delicacy and nuance of these specific works. The playing is
certainly heartfelt and undeniably professional, but in neither work’s case is
it very idiomatic – with the result that some of the power of both pieces is
vitiated. On the other hand, Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, which is also a dark-hued
work, comes through very well indeed, the Buffalo Philharmonic’s strings
sounding full and warm and Falletta pacing the music with just the right
combination of forward emphasis and emotional heft. The three remaining pieces
on the disc are lesser and shorter works, although each is effective in its own
way. Pietà by Ulysses Kay (1917-1995), here receiving its world
première recording, features some lovely English horn
material (played sensitively by Anna Mattix) that recalls Sibelius’ The Swan of Tuonela. There is woodwind
beauty as well in The Winter’s Passed
by Wayne Barlow (1912-1996) – here the oboist (Henry Ward) is crucial for
mood-setting, and the piece is shorter and somewhat less dour than Kay’s. And Lyric for Strings – Lament by George
Walker (1922-2018) has a gentle, crepuscular quality with considerable
wistfulness and a welcome feeling of peace – which is more than a little
disturbed when Walker’s work is followed on the disc by Haydn’s symphony, which
concludes the CD. Certainly music, which helps so many people get through so
much, is most welcome in a pandemic-ravaged world, where a great deal of life
seems constantly askew. The specific pieces on this CD, though, do not really
provide as much light as the disc’s title would lead listeners to expect, and
for which they have every right to hope.
The purpose of a new release from 4Tay Records is not to create a specific mood but to display a specific combination: of words written by women and music created by American composers. This is politically correct, perhaps, but not especially meaningful in any musical sense: if the words-and-music combination gets through emotionally to listeners, the audience is scarcely likely to marvel at the gender of the writer or the provenance of the composer. So what Michelle Areyzaga and Dana Brown really have here is a rather tenuous organizing principle – the question being not whether the works conform to the plan but whether they reach out effectively to anyone who may hear them. The answer is that, in the main, they do, thanks to the composers’ use of material whose quality and underlying musicality have resulted in its being set effectively at other times and by other people. Emily Dickinson’s poems get more use here than work by anyone else: Dickinson’s words appear in three songs by Richard Pearson Thomas (born 1957), five by Lee Hoiby (1926-2011), and seven by Gwyneth Walker (born 1947). These composers’ settings differ in significant ways: Thomas uses vocal decoration that occasionally emphasizes and occasionally distracts from the words; Hoiby focuses on elucidating the words’ meaning and gives the piano a mainly decorative role; and Walker makes the words even clearer than Hoiby does, showing a real understanding of the rhythmic nuances of Dickinson’s poetry. In all three cases, what comes through most strongly is just how well Dickinson’s sometimes-disjointed verse communicates a series of emotional touchpoints, usually with a single focus in a single poem but sometimes with quicksilver changes of mood and thought. The Dickinson songs are the strongest offerings on the CD, although Areyzaga and Brown provide all the material on the disc with equally committed performances. There are a couple of pieces here whose words seem inevitable in songs: How Do I Love Thee (Elizabeth Barrett Browning) as set by Edouard Lippé (1884-1956) and What Lips My Lips Have Kissed (Edna St. Vincent Millay) as set by John Duke (1899-1984). More interesting than these is Hoiby’s The Waltz, with words by Dorothy Parker and a rhythm that insists it is in three-quarter time even when it is not. Also among the single songs here are To My Dear and Loving Husband (Anne Bradstreet) as set by Wayland Rogers (1941-2020); La Luz (Gabriela Mistral) set by Walker; and A Julia de Burgos (using de Burgos’ words) by Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990). All these are short pieces that make just a brief impression. Mistral’s words are better served in Tres Poemas de Gabriela Mistral by Rogers, the third and most extended of which is especially tender and gently warm. The least successful works here are two by Patrice Michaels that focus on Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was the mother of Michaels’ husband. The celebration of Ginsburg has reached cultlike status in some corners, but neither of Michaels’ songs (one with words by Ginsburg herself, the other with words by Anita Escudero) has much to offer on a strictly musical basis – they are political screeds, advocacy pieces far more than musical ones. It is not to their benefit that they appear on this disc among so many better works. Indeed, most of the disc is better, which makes the recording a worthwhile and well-performed exploration of numerous texts using some distinctive musical approaches that, by and large, treat the material with respect and understanding.