A Most Creative and Pleasing Program
J Scott Morrison | Middlebury VT, USA | 01/01/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)
"The idea for this program is brilliant. Why not record four disparate works for solo voice and string quartet, all of them with an underlying melancholy? To keep the program from having a enervating sameness, why not use TWO different singers? And why not throw in a piano in one of the works? And call the whole thing by the title of one of them, 'Melancholie'? Well, one reason this kind of program might be hard to put together is that there aren't THAT many works with that array of performers. But the Ciompi Quartet found them, found other musicians to assist, and here they are!First up is a set of three songs by the treasurable Earl Kim (1920-1998), long-time professor at Princeton, founder of Musicians against Nuclear Arms, and composer of some of the loveliest songs I know (among them the seven songs of 'Where Grief Sleeps' sung by Dawn Upshaw on her CD entitled 'The Girl with Orange Lips'). These three songs--'En Sourdine,' 'Recueillement,' and 'Colloque sentimentale'--use poems from the 'Fêtes Galantes' of Paul Verlaine earlier set to music by Debussy, a brash act on Kim's part but one of homage as well. They are in an impressionistic musical style only moderately more advanced than Debussy's, and are entirely lovely. All speak of loss, regret, despair--'L'espoir a fui, vaincu, vers le ciel noir' ('Hope has flown, vanquished, toward the black sky'). Soprano Susan Narucki, previously known to me from her moving performance in the recording of Richard Einhorn's 'Voices of Light,' sings them ravishingly, accompanied sensitively by the Ciompi Quartet.Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) wrote the four songs collectively called 'Melancholie' in 1918 while on duty in the trenches as a soldier in World War I; a group of his fellow-soldiers had formed an informal string quartet in which Hindemith played first violin--he was a fine string player, performing for years as violist in the well-known Amar-Hindemith quartet. The songs--'Die Primeln blühn und grüssen,' 'Nebelweben,' 'Dunkler Tropfe,' and 'Traumwald' ('The primroses bloom and greet me,' 'Fogweaving,' 'Dark Drops,' and 'Dreamwood')--are to poems written in 1906 by Christian Morgenstern, and although written well before the Great War, they speak fittingly of suffering, fate, eternal sleep ('Dunkler Tropfe, der mir heut' in den Becher fiel, in den Becher der Freude, dunkler Tropfe Tod' ['O dark drop that fell into my cup today, into the cup of Joy, dark drop of Death']. The singer and her accompaniment try to keep up a jaunty attitude but eventually they subside into withdrawn acceptance, and Ms Narucki colors her voice accordingly so that at the end it is a husky whisper of resignation.I have not been much of a believer in the later music of Estonian minimalist/medievalist Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) but his 'Wallfahrtslied' ('Song of Pilgramage', 1984, rev. 1996, sung in German), a setting of Psalm 121 ('I will lift mine eyes unto the hills'), knocked me sideways. One would think that this psalm of trust in the Lord ('The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in for now and evermore') would be set to optimistic music. Not so here. Indeed, Pärt's music is stark, uncompromising, darkly pessimistic and thus treats the text with deepest irony if not outright scorn. Add to this the tenor's vocal line consisting almost entirely of a single pitch and using only a total of three different pitches altogether. Tenor Steven Tharp, whose light tenor is perfect for conveying the puzzled disillusionment inherent in the psalm's musical treatment, sings it to perfection. The quartet accompaniment is fragmented and restless, interrupting at one point with a lopsided waltz and at the end the first violinist gropes higher and higher as the accompaniment falters into uncomprehending silence. I believe this 12-minute work, previously unknown to me, is a masterpiece and warrants wider exposure.The best-known work here is Ralph Vaughan Williams's masterly setting of six poems from A. E. Housman's 'The Shropshire Lad' called, after one of the poems, 'On Wenlock Edge.' I've known and loved this work for close on forty years and have heard many live and recorded performances of it. The recordings that stick most in my mind are those of Peter Pears, Robert Tear and Anthony Rolfe Johnson. This performance by Steven Tharp (accompanied by the Ciompi Quartet, joined by pianist Jane Hawkins) is the equal of those. An American, Tharp does not have quite the English sound that one associates with the piece, but his light and boyish-sounding tenor fits the text perfectly and his American diction somehow adds to the Shropshire lad's sense of innocent disbelief in the inevitability of disillusion and loss. I cannot listen to these songs very often because, frankly, I wind up in a puddle of tears. But I've been listening to this performance again and again for the past few days, seemingly unable to get past it. That is, in case I need to spell it out, a recommendation. Albany Records provides texts and, where needed, translations; unfortunately there are several confusing typos, which seem to be all too common in the booklets Albany provides. I must say that both singers have excellent diction. For 'On Wenlock Edge,' for instance, English speakers need not follow the printed English texts. The booklet notes by Ciompi cellist Fred Raimi are exemplary. Sound is clear, warm, spacious, life-like.A creatively programmed, beautifully performed hour-long concert that I know I will be returning to again and again. Heartily recommended.TT=57:29Scott Morrison"
Ian A. White | England | 08/14/2006
(3 out of 5 stars)
"I purchased this CD purely for the sake of the work by Vaughan Williams and although I have, of course, listened to the other items, they made too little impact on me to inspire any positive, or negative, comment.
I was, however, eager to hear, for the first time, an American rendering of "On Wenlock Edge" and was by no means disappointed by this one. As an Englishman who has listened to the work innumerable times, both in its orchestral and quartet versions, by a variety of English soloists and instrumental ensembles, I have to say that, perhaps not surprisingly, I found the performance, at times, a little "rough round the edges" : Jane Hawkins needs to work some more on those wonderful-but-supposed-to-be-rolling chords in "From Far from Eve and Morning" and Steven Vargas' intonation is not always as sure as one would wish.
However, notwithstanding such imperfections - or perhaps because of them - the performance gave me much of the pleasure one experiences on hearing a work for the first time. The quality of Mr Tharp's voice and his pronunciation of the verse may not, as the previous reviewer says, be particularly English butI found that this mattered not at all. As that reviewer also remarks, the singer conjures the regretful, nostalgic, little-boy-lost persona of the Shropshire Lad with an immediacy and a controlled feeling that warrants much praise. The Ciompi quartet and Ms Hawkins provide generally very effective and atmospheric support.
Unfortunately, to my ears, the quality of the recording, though acceptable, is in somewhat less than the "demonstration" class."