About two weeks ago soprano Ann Moss released her latest recording, Love Life, as a digital album, available for download from bandcamp, and in physical form from CD Baby. Moss is Artistic Director of CMASH (Chamber Music Art Song Hybrid), a repertory group committed to establishing and nurturing long-term collaborative relationships between composers and performers. Two of the CMASH composers are featured on Love Life. The opening selection, Full Fathom Five, a cycle of poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay, was composed by Liam Moss in 2014. The other two sets are by Jake Heggie. The earlier of these (2013) consists of setting of four of the poems from Galway Kinnell’s collection The Book of Nightmares. The other, composed the following year, assembles four poems by Emily Dickinson under the title Newer Every Day: Songs for Kiri (dedicated to soprano Kiri Te Kanawa). In addition the album concludes with Heggie’s setting of Philip Sidney’s “My True Love Hath My Heart.” CMASH pianist Steven Bailey is the accompanist, joined by CMASH cellist Emil Miland for all of these selections except Newer Every Day.
In addition the album offers three “interludes” in the form of arrangements of popular songs, presumably inserted as reflections on younger days. The earliest of these is the 1965 Beatles hit “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” given an a cappella arrangement by CMASH composer Josh Grimmett in which Moss sings with the members of Chanticleer. Moss and Bailey collaborated on arranging Bob Dylan’s “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome;” and the final selection is Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You,” arranged by Wade with accompaniment by cello (Miland) and violin (CMASH member Isaac Allen).
In her notes for the accompanying booklet, Moss surveys the many different aspects of love that are revealed through the selections she assembled. While this provides valuable orientation for the listener, I must confess that I was more interested in homing in on the poetry. If Moss has been informed by her own personal experiences, then I must confess that I shall never forget my eleventh-grade English teacher, if only for the compelling way in which she would read Millay’s poems. Millay packed so much into her verses that a rhetorically-sensitive recitation of any one of her poems had a music of its own that would make both vocalists and instrumentalists superfluous. As a result I found myself somewhat disappointed that Full Fathom Five seemed to be more about the music than about the powerful texts being set. In many respects Dickinson poses similar problems, but Heggie seemed to have found just the right sweet spot to bring Dickinson’s voice into alignment with Moss’ in a setting established by his piano accompaniment. (Heggie himself was the pianist for this selection.)
The pop selections were bold experiments. However, particularly where the Beatles and Dylan were concerned, even when the music was affectionate, there was always as sense that the edges were a bit too sharp for sentiment. One could not listen to the original tracks without wondering just how much irony was behind the delivery. Moss seems to have dispensed with the irony and gone to the core of the underling sentiment. This is certainly consistent with the overall theme of the album, but it will probably be a bit disorienting for anyone with fond memories of the originals! (Joni Mitchell, on the other hand, was a bit more susceptible to the arrangement her song was given.)
Still, at the risk of sounding a bit too pretentious, I would argue that it is the “real” poetry that lies at the heart of this album. When the words of the poet align with the expressiveness of the composer, which they do in Heggie’s treatments, the listener is reminded of why poetry is worth reading in the first place. Moss clearly knows how to say what she wants to say through poetry; and, particularly in the Heggie interpretations, she says it successfully by singing it.