Singing, Part Two

Songs are simple. They’ve always been simple. While intuitively we can know that human beings were singing long before the earliest physical records of civilization, the earliest notational records of songs prove that simplicity; single lines followed by multiple voices in unison. The idea of singing would be developed into more complex compositions, the vocal polyphony of the Renaissance or opera, but basic songs haven’t changed much through the centuries. Song writers strive to express what they consider the meaning of the words, and songs generally succeed by being clear and circumscribed, and they generally fail when they are fussily complicated or refuse to offer any ideas about the words. This is true whether the song comes from John Dowland or Johnny Rotten, Richard Strauss or Richard Thompson.

And how many songs are about the singular topic of love? What percentage might it be, three-quarters, more? Some enterprising PhD candidate will make a database someday, perhaps. I think the main reason this is so is that love is both so central to the human experience and so hard to express and describe in pure words. ‘Love is like,’ ‘I feel this way,’ always are inadequate to what the sensations actually are. But put love to musc, have music color and support love, and let the body open up and vibrate in song, and then you just might have something.

Songs, love songs, any kind of songs, have close cognates in classical and pop music, although the rise of Romanticism, and the great flowering of the art song, marks a dividing line between two traditions that, at least in English, go back to Dowland. You’ll find Dowland in the classical bins and databases only because the songs are several hundred years old, but his music was, and remains, pop music. Listen to it and it’s obvious. To paraphrase James Brown, they hit it and quite, they concentrate on a single idea and express it with specificity and concentration, i.e. pop music.

Art songs have the power of ambiguity, of not, at their best, ever revealing all their cards, of coming to an end but not a conclusion. Ideally, they do this with clarity and sincerity, and they can express the unimaginable tragedies of the Kindertotenlieder without ever once being explicit, or they can dissipate in the gauzy, dazzling phoniness of the Four Last Songs. The things that art songs say need to be said as well, and so their power endures.

I hear the last moment when the art song and the popular sensibility elided in the songs of Robert Schumann, especially in his great cycles Liederkreis and Dichterliebe. The latter work opens with the extraordinary “Im wunderschönen Monat Mai,” ninety seconds of the perfect love song. It expresses an idea of love through words and music as directly as the best pop music and as artfully – deeply, complexly, hauntingly – as the greatest art music. In the hands of capable musicians it cannot be done badly, and in the hands of thoughtful and expressive musicians, like the tenor Mark Padmore and pianist Kristian Bezuidenhout, it’s a brief marvel, and emblematic of a new recording that joins the ranks of the finest documents of this music.

This CD is notable for it’s balance of beauty and musical intelligence. There is no sacrifice between the two qualities; each supports and informs the other. Padmore and Bezuidenhout have their responses to Schumann’s work, the responses are informed by their intelligence, and their musicality means they express these responses with great beauty. Padmore’s high tenor is an ideal instrument for these songs that capture feelings about love and life that are appropriate for any age but most keenly express the yearning and puzzlement of late adolescence. It’s this quality that he captures, inhabiting the emotional world of a confused young man, and it’s ideal. He’s mercurial, tender, then heroic, full of false bravado then beset with doubts.

Bezuidenhoot is more than an accompanist, he’s a partner in the music. At times he seems to constructively take the lead, illuminate the path the singer follows. This is notable especially in “Anfangs wollt’ich fast verzagen” from the Liederkreis, and the exceptional jauntiness of the “Das ist ein Flöten und Geigen” waltz from Dichterliebe. He plays the fortepiano, and the dry, mellow sound is intriguing and pleasing. The recording itself has a nice resonance, but I do wonder what the quality might have been if the same instrument was used in a different room. WIth a drier, more up front acoustic, the CD could come off as an intimate salon recital, very much appropriate for this music, although with the performer’s vivid fervor the experience might be too intense. This is as fine as you will ever hear Schumann and is my first choice for these great pieces.

The composer’s Spanisches Liebeslieder, Op. 74 and 138, are slightly lesser works in terms of gravity, expressive power and variety and importance, but the music is lovely and sincere. These are collected on another new recording, along with his Minnespiel, Op. 101, sung by Marlis Petersen, Anke Vondung, Werner Güra and Konrad Jarnot, with Christoph Berner and Camillo Radicke accompanying on the piano (and piano four-hands for the Op. 138). The music is characteristically Schumann, mixing sweetness and sadness in a poignant balance that no other composer has managed so effectively. The setting for ensemble voices give a strong impression of an active dialogue between sets of lovers, each singing the same ideas and sentiments to each other.

This is a gorgeous recording, with excellent performances. The musicians really speak on Schumann’s terms and in his style, with exceptional articulation from the singers – at times it seems almost conversational. Berner and Radicke support the vocalists with robust, colorful playing and the phrasing of all the singers seems as sensitive and musically appropriate to Schumann’s expressive melodies as can be. Petersen deserves special mention for he arresting singing of “Tief im Herzen trag’ich Pein” from the Op. 138 cycle, but she is ultimately one of equally fine group. A lovely recording.

The preceding CDs are on the Harmonia Mundi label, and they are joined by a third that is one of the best releases of 2010, countertenor Bejun Mehta’s collection of Handel arias, Ombra Cara , under the direction of Rene Jacobs. Handel has been undergoing a long Renaissance and there is a vast amount of vocal material available for his many dozen operas and dramatic oratorios. While not every one of those large-scale works is equally distinguished, there are individual passages and arias that shine in every one. Mehta collects pieces from well-known operas like Agrippina and Orlando, as well as from obscure works. The CD begins with “Sento la gioia,” from Amadigi di Gaula, surely not be seen on a stage near you soon. This aria, and Mehta’s performance, presages the absolute glories to come, and glorious is the single best way to describe this CD. These are prime examples of the spectacular music Handel could produce for the voice, melodies and harmonies that are brilliant in every way, that are technically demanding in the sense that you delight in how amazing it is to hear someone sing this way. Mehta is an impressive countertenor, a real stand out in what is becoming a crowded feel. His voice has excellent intonation, color and an unusual fullness, and he uses these qualities towards expressive ends. He tosses off the extended, fast arpeggiations of the opening track with seeming ease, but impresses even more with the following, darkly dramatic “Voi, che udite il mio lamento” from Agrippina. I love the changing emotional timbre he carries in the long notes, the exquisitely modulated vibrato, coming in slowly and then smoothly increasing in frequency, that is perfect for the period concept that Jacobs brings. The conductor is leading the Freiburger Barockorchester and is as impressive as always. Rosemary Joshua joins Mehta for duets from Rodelinda and Sosarme, but this is Mehta’s project. The strength and beauty of his singing, the real emotional and intellectual passion that he brings, drives the great elegance and energy of the entire disc. A real winner, and an equal to the great Handel recordings of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and Cecilia Bartoli, and one of the most excitingly beautiful recordings I’ve hear in years.

Another winning combination of singer, conductor and composer is Christine Brewer’s set of Great Strauss Scenes . Brewer is joined by the exciting young bass-baritone Eric Owens, and accompanied by Donald Runnicles, one of the leading contemporary Straussians, who brings out dazzling playing from the Atlanta Symphony. Brewer has put together a program that not only displays her powerful, shining, clear voice, but makes an interesting abstract narrative out of pieces from Elektra, Capriccio, Die Frau ohne Schatten and Salome, moving from the “Recognition” scene between Orestes and Electra and Salome’s finale. By reconfiguring the context of the music, she is offering fascinating questions about how Strauss thinks of his women characters, and, I think, making Strauss more interesting and listenable than I usually find him. Her singing is wonderful, she is so technically at ease that she has the room and power to say a lot about the music, and what she has to say about it is consistently compelling. There is so much inherent drama and intensity in her expression that she demands attention. This is a fascinating, complex and musically accomplished project, with musical and intellectual depth. and excellent for those who love Strauss and those who are curious about him.

There are so many ways to sing, of course, and so many ways to convey drama and meaning in song. Strauss and Handel are extroverted, the songs of Johannes Haarklou, who is new to me, are introverted but have no less meaning. Eighteen of them are collected on a CD, from soprano Linda Øvrebø and pianist Kristin Fossheim, Sommernatt . Haarklou has a personal idiom that combines a Romantic sound with the straightforward setting of words and a succinct sense of form that seems to have come from his background playing traditional Norwegian music on the fiddle. The songs are melodious and sweet-tempered, deceptively simple, and the performances are bright and lively, with what seems to be as much straightforwardness of expression as in the compositions. It’s difficult to say more about the music, since the booklet provides no translations from the Norwegian and so there is no way to judge meaning, but this CD is a pleasure to hear.

Closer to home and easier to apprehend are three recordings of songs in English. The first is Let Beauty Awake , a recital from baritone Joshua Hopkins, accompanied by Jerad Mosbey on piano. Hopkins choice of material is excellent, with fine familiar music, less familiar songs from a well known composer, and some superb surprises. He begins with Ralph Vaughan Williams Songs of Travel, setting Robert Louis Stevenson. These are smart, simple, powerful songs and ideal for displaying Hopkins voice, which is full, supple, slightly flinty and pleasingly virile. He and Mosbey perform this terrific cycle with verve and passion. The CD concludes with Samuel Barber’s Three Songs, Op. 45, exceptional music sung exceptionally well. In between are the surprises, South of North – Images of Canada, a cycle from Srul Irving Gluck, and Paul Bowles’ Blue Mountain Ballads. Gluck is new to me, and the songs combine haunting touches of impressionistic type accompaniment that often develops into wonderful, yearning, melodious expression. They are beguiling to the ear and quite poignant. Bowles is of course famous a novelist, but was originally a composer and songs were one of his strengths. These songs set Tennessee Williams and are some of the finest art songs in the American classical tradition. Bowles later career obscures the very true Americanness of his compositional style, one that underlines the meaning and essence of the text while using widely-voiced, modern harmonies. Bowles is something of a cross between Copland and William Schuman, and the quality of the writing is enough to make one wish he had put down more notes and fewer words on paper. This CD is a winner, not a weak piece of music on it and Hopkins is an exciting, satisfying performer.

In a similar vein is a substantial collection of songs from the contemporary American composer Scott Wheeler, Wasting The Night: Songs . In this music, Wheeler works with several centuries of poetry, from Blake to Emily Dickenson, from Rilke to Billy Collins. His sensitivity to the words and his convictions about their meaning are clear in his style, which seems to set each poem in the most appropriate way possible, with a minimum of fuss. I admire the way he lets the lyrics speak – he doesn’t double the singers’ lines, instead he really accompanies the singing with music that works with, responds to and comments on the text. Wheeler provides a setting, paints a picture, engages with the ideas and sentiments. The performances are led by the excellent, veteran American baritone William Sharp, joined by soprano Susanna Phillips, mezzo Krista River and Tenor Joseph Kaiser, all accompanied by Donald Berman. The musicians have fully incorporated this music, the performances are confident, intimate and accomplished. Wheeler has already produced two operas and has been commissioned for a third by the Metropolitan Opera and Lincoln Center Theater, and after hearing the range and strength of his skill on this terrific CD, I’m very much looking forward to what he puts on stage. Fine – and even better, interesting – in every way.

Less successful is Love Songs , a project from the jazz pianist Brad Mehldau collaborating with the great mezzo Anne Sofie von Otter. This is a two CD set, the first disc with seven new songs from Mehldau, the second with the two musicians performing a varied collection of pop songs, from Richard Rogers to Lennon and McCartney. Mehldau seems to be in the middle of a project to develop some bona fides as a classical composer, but it’s not working and is superfluous. He is one of the leading jazz musicians of the era, and the music he writes for jazz playing is top notch. His setting of songs, far less so. He has chosen five texts from Sara Teasdale and one each from e.e. cummings and Philip Larkin. His writing is too much, and too much of the same thing. The words may all be about love, but they are not all about love in the same way, yet each song sounds too familiar compared to the others, as if Mehldau thinks the same way about each poem. While his accompaniment varies in terms of technique (block chords, arpeggiations, etc.), his harmonic structure and melodies become monotonous quickly. Everything is overwritten, overpowering, so many things going on without ease, there is no room for the lyrics to speak and absolutely no place for nuance, for constructive doubt. The great strength of the art song is that there remains an indeterminacy, something to come back to and wonder about. Mehldau is writing pop songs, with all their specificity and certainty, in the guise of art songs, and the final product is both weak and ponderous.

The second disc is successful because the songs are good and the approach is clear. Von Otter has already shown in her collaboration with Elvis Costello that she can sing music like this with ease and comfort, without crushing it under mannerisms like many classical singers do with pop music. The duo’s version of Joni Mitchell’s “Marcie” is especially fine, and offers a lesson in what Mehldau might consider trying. There’s also a lush, knowing take on Jacques Brel’s “Chanson des vieux amants,” and a welcome appearance from Michel Legrand’s exceptionally fine “What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life?”, in a gorgeous performance. Mehldau and von Otter wrap up their covers with “Blackbird” and another tremendous pop song, “Some Other Time.” Love Songs is half a great album.

One comment

  • I’m especially interested in that new recording of Spanisches Liebeslieder. I love those pieces, and it was as a tribute to them that Brahms wrote his own great pieces for the same personnel. In fact, I think you could easily extend your art song/pop song equation at least to Brahms.

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