cover of recording being discussed (courtesy of Naxos of America)
This past Friday, hot on the heels of Fourth of July celebrations, PENTATONE released a recital recording of soprano Melody Moore entitled An American Song Album. Moore is accompanied at the piano by Bradley Moore (no family relation). The selections cover both the twentieth and the current centuries and a diversity of stylistic approaches. The earliest selections are four songs by Aaron Copland that were not published until 1998, about eight years after his death. The longest composition is Samuel Barber’s Opus 29 settings of monastic marginalia entitled Hermit Songs. The other twentieth-century composer included is Carlisle Floyd with The Mystery: Five Songs of Motherhood setting texts by Gabriela Mistral. The current century is represented by selections by Gordon Getty and Jake Heggie.
Regular readers probably know that Hermit Songs is a personal favorite. Indeed, this past April served up two performances in less than a week’s time, the first presented by the Schwabacher Recital Series and the second through the annual free Gift Concert presented by San Francisco Performances. Much as I prefer concert settings, I was thoroughly absorbed by Moore’s interpretation of Barber’s songs, particularly the ones that are almost haiku-like in their brevity. Daphne Arabella, on the other hand, was not particularly happy with “The Monk and His Cat;” but what can you expect from a cat named after two operas by Richard Strauss?
As might be guessed, the Copland songs were the major “adventure of discovery” on this album. They were written when he was a teenager, meaning that they predate his studies with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. Nevertheless, there seemed to be traces of Gabriel Fauré, which is probably somewhat consistent with the notes for the accompanying booklet by Jeff Kaliss, which suggest the influence of Henri Duparc. Personally, the Floyd selection also made for an enjoyable discovery, since my knowledge of Floyd has been limited to his operas.
With the exception of an aria from his opera Goodbye, Mr. Chips, the Getty selections are arrangements. He has a gift for setting familiar tunes in a distinctively new light, which is the case for both “Deep River” and “Danny Boy.” The settings of three traditional Welsh songs will probably be less familiar to most listeners, but they make for a fascinating transition from folk song to art song.
Most imaginative is Heggie’s These Strangers, which juxtaposes texts by four different authors into an almost continuously uninterrupted single movement. Often, however, Heggie’s music has a tendency to overshadow the words, meaning that they only can be followed with the assistance of text sheets. The common theme of “otherness” is a compelling one; but it was hard for me to resist worrying that the music was intruding upon the words, rather than shining light upon them. That concern also surfaced in How Well I Knew the Light, a diptych of settings of poems by Emily Dickinson that suggests that the composer had never taken the trouble to read the poems aloud prior to considering how they might best be framed within a musical setting.