November 10, 2022


Artur Schnabel: Songs for Voice and Piano; Notturno for Voice and Piano. Sara Couden, contralto; Jenny Lin, piano. Steinway & Sons. $17.99.

Songs for Soprano and Piano by Respighi, Rimsky-Korsakov, Giuseppe Martucci, Elsa Sangiacomo Respighi, and Vittorio Rieti. Gabrielle Haigh, soprano; Randall Fusco, piano. MSR Classics. $14.95.

Georgia Shreve: Oratorios—Lavinia; Anna Komnene. Meredith Lustig, Jacqueline Bolier, Elizabeth Sutphen, and Wendy Bryn Harmer, sopranos; Carla Jablonski, mezzo-soprano ; Alexander McKissick and Roy Hage, tenors; Timothy McDevitt, baritone; Brandon Cedel, bass-baritone; Czech National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Steven Mercurio. MSR Classics. $14.95.

Cantus: Into the Light. Signum Records. $17.99.

     The history of pianist-composers is as old as the history of the piano itself – older, actually, if you think of “keyboardists-composers.” And of course it includes some of the greatest composers of all time (Mozart, Beethoven) plus a slew of noteworthy Romantic-era-and-afterwards names (Liszt, Thalberg, Alkan, Rachmaninoff and many others). In almost all cases, though, the musicians end up being considered primarily one thing or the other – performer or creator – and their other area of interest gets short shrift from posterity. That is certainly the case with Artur Schnabel (1882-1951), one of the great pianists of the 20th century and, not incidentally, a composer of considerable skill. Recent years have seen more attention paid to Schnabel’s compositions, but not much more, and that is one reason a new Steinway & Sons CD featuring Sara Couden and Jenny Lin is so welcome. Another reason is that the songs heard on this disc – which is the first complete recording of Schnabel’s vocal works – are worthy in and of themselves. A third reason is that the CD includes not only 22 songs but also the fascinating Notturno for Voice and Piano, a 1914 setting of Richard Dehmel’s poem of the same name. Schnabel wrote the poem for his wife, Therese Behr-Schnabel, who was a contralto, and the two often performed the work together. The piano part is quite complex, capable of being performed on its own as a kind of improvisational piece, while the vocal part demands excellence in the low range and a firm understanding of the Symbolist text, which involves a dream of death and a thankful awakening from it. Notturno is primarily atonal and dissonant, but Schnabel includes traditional tonality in some sections – and there are no bar lines, which means the work’s structure is fluid and complex. This is not a short piece – it runs almost 23 minutes in the Couden/Lin performance – but it never disappoints in its variability, unusual treatment of the material, and above all its tonal changeableness. This work alone, which Couden and Lin handle with great sensitivity and expressiveness, would make this CD worthwhile, but there is considerably more here. The disc includes the world première recording of Five Songs for Voice and Piano (1902-06) as well as performances of Ten Songs for Voice and Piano (1899-1901/02) and Seven Songs for Voice and Piano (1901-02/03). All these song sets are essentially late Romantic in concept and execution, although the five not previously recorded are somewhat more adventurous than the others in structure and tonality; one, interestingly, sets words by Friedrich Rückert, who was so much a part of Mahler’s earlier creative period. If there is a single theme that recurs throughout Schnabel’s song sets, it is that of time passing both seasonally (Spring Greeting, Twilight of Spring, October Song) and during each individual day (This Is a Proper Morning, Evening Serenade, Evening Landscape). The quality of the poetry is generally on the mundane side, but Schnabel treats every text sensitively and with feeling, producing songs that are very much of their time but are certainly deserving of as much attention as others from the same period. Couden and Lin make a first-rate case for all this music, and if Schnabel will always be remembered more for his pianism than his compositions, this disc shows that when as well-performed as they are here, his songs have something to offer that goes beyond his exceptional keyboard prowess.

     Schnabel is scarcely the only composer of late Romantic and early modern times to have produced worthy but largely neglected vocal music. Another such is Ottorino Respighi, whose forays into and reinterpretations of “antique” music are well-known, whose Rome-centered orchestral tone poems are repertoire standards, but whose vocal productions are very rarely encountered. Gabrielle Haigh and Randall Fusco put some of Rossini’s songs into a very interesting context on an MSR Classics CD with the intriguing title of Il Circolo Respighi – that is, “The Respighi Club.” The idea here is to present not only songs by Respighi and his wife, Elsa – who had been his pupil and was herself a composer of some talent – but also to provide a context for Respighi’s vocal music by including works by another of his pupils, Vittorio Rieti, and some by his teachers Rimsky-Korsakov and Giuseppe Martucci. As an exercise in musical scholarship and clever programming, this (+++) disc is a success, but for more-casual listeners and as an overall musical program, it is less of one. One reason is the CD’s structure: Rimsky-Korsakov and Martucci items precede Respighi’s pleasant and pleasurable Deità Silvane, but then there is material by Elsa Respighi, then by Rieti, then Elsa Respighi again, then more by Ottorino Respighi himself, and finally a song by Rimsky-Korsakov. The result is confusion: an arrangement starting with the teachers, continuing with the composer-in-focus, and concluding with the pupils, would have made much more sense and would have provided a better perspective on this particular “club.” Respighi’s songs are in Italian, while others here are in French and Russian, showcasing the cosmopolitan nature of the Respighi circle and the varying influences on which Respighi drew when creating his own music. The relevance of the particular songs chosen for this recording, however, is less than apparent – they seem simply to be ones that appeal to the performers, which of course is fine, but which reduces the ability of listeners to find connections among the offerings. What is clear throughout the disc is how well Haigh handles this material: she has a firm, clear, well-supported soprano voice that seems thoroughly at home in repertoire from this time period, and she presents all the songs with respect and with close attention to their emotional underpinnings – without ever overdoing their sometimes-excessive sentimentality. Fusco supports her ably throughout, and the disc will be of considerable interest both to listeners with a special liking for Respighi’s music and to those intrigued by the chance to hear a well-sung if somewhat scattershot attempt to present some of his vocal works in context.

     A (+++) “project” disc of a different sort, also from MSR Classics, features two one-act oratorios with texts and music by Georgia Shreve, who in both cases aims to elevate and rehabilitate the reputations of famous women of antiquity. Lavinia is based of Ursula Le Guin’s reinterpretation of elements of Virgil’s Aeneid, while Anna Komnene studies the famous (some would say notorious) princess who wrote the remarkable Alexiad history of the Byzantine Empire and was either unfairly deprived of the empire’s rule or herself sought unfairly to deprive the rightful heir of the throne (depending on which sources one consults and chooses to believe). Shreve keeps both the works short and to the point – each is in the 40-minute range – and the musical material mostly tonal and very well suited to the words, which come through clearly, fluidly and fluently in these world première recordings. Shreve is not so much seeking a new language for musical and historical communication as she is trying to use music as a gateway toward reconsideration of the importance of women in the ancient world – a kind of rethinking of the female role in a way that lines up with modern sensibilities (both these works date to 2020). The underlying sociopolitical gloss is less intrusive in these works than in many others with similar sensibilities – a plus for both the pieces. If the libretti are hagiographic and one-sided, they are no more so than many other texts for oratorios and operas – and if the subject matter of both works is on the obscure side, that too is no different here from what audiences frequently encounter elsewhere. Unfortunately, the musical storytelling is not especially compelling: the stories are more interesting than Shreve’s settings of them. For example, the two brief overtures (each lasting less than three minutes) are mundane enough so that they could be swapped without unduly interfering with the presentation of the works: there is simply not enough differentiation between the two oratorios’ style or musical content to keep things interestingly distinctive. The vocal writing is on the operatic side, and Shreve handles it well – with all the performers negotiating the material skillfully. But the overall impression left by the music is one of blandness: Lavinia and Anna Komnene are both more-interesting figures than they come across as being in Shreve’s presentations.

     A (++++) Signum Classics release featuring the vocal group Cantus deals with far-better-known fare – and manages to re-energize seasonal favorites in some entertaining ways that remain appropriate for Christmas. Saunder Choi’s arrangement of Angels We Have Heard On High and Kenneth Jennings’ handling of O Little Town of Bethlehem are highlights of this 17-song CD, which very effectively makes the familiar new throughout while sprinkling in, here and there, seasonal material that is not often presented in collections like this: Joni Mitchell’s River and Francisco Grau Vegara’s Mensaje de Paz, to cite two examples. There are world première arrangements here, such as Chris Foss’ very extended (11-minute) setting of ’Twas the Night Before Christmas, and Foss – who sings bass in Cantus – also here offers the première of his own new carol, Love, the God Eternal. And there are sensitive, beautifully sung versions of the “miner’s carol” Alleluia! Into the Light, which gives the CD its overall “Into the Light” title; the traditional Austrian Still, Still, Still; and, inevitably and gorgeously, Silent Night. Cantus is an all-male ensemble whose low-voice arrangements are inevitably delivered with warmth and the kind of dark beauty befitting the winter season. The group is known for its excellent handling of Renaissance music as well as far-more-modern material. What it shows in this seasonal recording is that even straightforward celebratory music, even music with which listeners have been familiar for years or decades, can sound new and more special than ever when proffered in well-thought-out arrangements by singers who, individually and collectively, seem fully to have internalized the secular joy as well as the spirituality of the Christmas season – and who are able to express the meaning and meaningfulness of this time of year through unerringly paced, lovingly presented versions of every single piece on the disc.

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