July 28, 2022


Respighi: Songs. Timothy Fallon, tenor; Ammiel Bushakevitz, piano. BIS. $19.99 (SACD).

Music for Piano Trio by Shawn E. Okpebholo, Augusta Read Thomas, Shulamit Ran, Mischa Zupko, and Stacy Garrop. Lincoln Trio (Desirée Ruhstrat, violin; David Cunliffe, cello; Marta Aznavoorian, piano). Cedille. $16.

     Although Respighi was determined to show ways in which Italian music could be purely instrumental without being beholden to the Germanic tradition – breaking listeners’ identification of Italian composers almost solely with opera – he nevertheless created a considerable number of vocal works (including nine operas of his own). Among his music for voice, his songs are highly personal and most are not at all well-known. Timothy Fallon has assembled an interesting and wide-ranging collection of Respighi songs for a new BIS recording in which he is very ably accompanied by his longtime recital partner, pianist Ammiel Bushakevitz. The songs chosen by Fallon were composed over a period of nearly 30 years: the earliest, L'ultima ebbrezza, dates to 1896 (when Respighi was 17); the latest, Quattro arie scozzesi (“Four Scottish Songs”), were written in 1924 and use English-language texts. These temporal bookends show that Respighi early developed great sensitivity for the cadence of words and never lost his concern with using the piano to underline and highlight the text: the earliest song here practically oozes Romantic-era lyricism, while the Scottish songs are all declamatory in folk-like manner – and the last of them, “The Piper of Dundee,” has a particularly effective and contributory piano part. There is much to discover and enjoy elsewhere on the disc as well. Deità silvane (“Woodland Deities”) is a five-song cycle with especially effective tone-painting in the fourth, “Acqua,” and the fifth, “Crepusculo” (which has a wistful twilight sound throughout). There is one other cycle on the disc, and it showcases Respighi’s long-lasting interest in music of olden times: Cinque canti all'antica is not at the level of his Ancient Airs and Dances in its approach to music of the past, but is sensitive throughout to the texts by Renaissance poets. Indeed, sensitivity is the hallmark of all the songs on this disc, which includes a couple of comparatively well-known works (Stornellatrice and Nebbie) along with many rarities – more than two dozen songs in all. Fallon has an admirably well-controlled voice and considerable sensitivity to the varying emotions underlying these works, and he sings everything with commitment and a fine sense of style. That does not, however, quite make this a general-interest release: a few of Respighi’s creations are exceptionally popular (notably the Roman Trilogy), but much of his oeuvre remains comparatively obscure, attractive for its Impressionism, its explorations and reinterpretations of pieces created centuries earlier, and its overall stylistic clarity and directness – but not widely popular. Art songs as a genre tend to be limited in their reach, with the exception of a few of the acknowledged masterpieces of the form; so while this Respighi recording is welcome for its finely attentive approach to generally obscure music, it is not likely to attract a significant audience to this element of the composer’s work.

     Contemporary chamber music is even more rarefied, and a disc whose unifying principle is a combination of modernity with geography – focusing on five composers from Chicago – is by definition reaching out only to listeners with a specific set of interests and concerns. The Lincoln Trio’s performances on a new Cedille CD are admirable throughout, though. The disc opens with one of its three world première recordings, city beautiful (one of those lower-case titles – this is an affectation for some of today’s composers) by Shawn E. Okpebholo (born 1981). This is a three-movement work whose opening “aqua” (all the movements have lower-case titles) is a more strongly rhythmic piece than Respighi’s song “Acqua” but does not convey the sense of water as effectively (it is actually intended to portray a city skyscraper). The other movements, “prairie” and “burnham,” deploy the instruments effectively but will have full meaning only for listeners fully aware of the portions of Chicago to which the music refers. Augusta Read Thomas’ …a circle around the sun… (a double affectation: lower-case title with surrounding ellipses) is in two contrasting, equally atonal movements – Thomas (born 1964) seems mainly interested in highlighting each individual instrument against the other two. Soliloquy by Shulamit Ran (born 1949) is the most-lyrical work on the disc, comparatively old-fashioned in its expressiveness and connecting to listeners to better effect and with greater warmth than other, more-extended pieces. Fanfare 80 by Mischa Zupko (born 1971) is the second world première recording here, and is scarcely fanfare-like, although it is certainly dramatic and fraught with rhythmic intensity. The final world première recording ends the CD. It is Sanctuary by Stacy Garrop (born 1969), a two-movement piece that lasts almost half the length of the entire disc (23½ minutes out of 52). Perhaps because the work has a highly personal underlying story – it is a tribute to Garrop’s father – it comes across with considerable emotive power and takes listeners through a wide variety of moods and feelings. Its foundational reason for being is not required to appreciate and become involved in it. The movements are called “Without” and “Within,” the first intended to portray a child searching for a lost parent and the second being the parent’s response from within the child’s heart. But unlike much contemporary music, Sanctuary does not require advance study and analysis to have its effect: an audience that has no familiarity with Garrop’s intent or “plot line” will nevertheless be engaged in and moved by the varying moods and throughgoing expressiveness of the music. This work and Ran’s Soliloquy are the highlights of the CD; the other works have elements of interest, and everything on the disc is played with fervor and a high level of involvement, but only Garrop and Ran seem genuinely to reach out and seek hoped-for connections between themselves and listeners.

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