This past June 26, Ensemble for These Times (E4TT) held a party streamed through both Facebook and YouTube to celebrate the release of its latest album. The group is the trio led by soprano Nanette McGuinness performing with cellist Anne Lerner and pianist Dale Tsang and joined by resident composer David Garner. The title of the new recording is Once/Memory/Night: Paul Celan, and its release on June 30 was scheduled to commemorate the birth of the Romanian poet Celan on November 23, 1920. It is available on Amazon.com only for MP3 download. Unfortunately, Amazon did not make arrangements to include the accompanying booklet in the album download package; but E4TT has compensated by provided the PDF file of the booklet, which is available, at no charge, for download.
On the recording Tsang is replaced by pianist Xin Zhao. In addition, the scoring for the major composition on the album, Garner’s Die eichne Tür (the oaken door), setting five of Celan’s poems, adds both English horn (Laura Reynolds) and violin (Ilana Blumberg) to the instrumentation. This is one of two cycles based on Celan texts. The other is Jared Redmond’s Nachtlang (nightlong), performed by the E4TT trio. Both of these pieces were composed in response to E4TT commissions. E4TT also commissioned Stephen Eddins to set the poem by Czesław Miłosz entitled “A Song on the End of the World” in English. The English translation was provided by the poet’s son Anthony. The track of Eddins’ setting is preceded by the English text read by the translator. Finally, the album has an “overture” in the form of the five-movement solo piano suite by Libby Larsen entitled 4½ (probably a reflection on the brevity of all five of her movements).
Taken as a whole, this is an ambitious undertaking. Celan was of Romanian-Jewish descent, but his family spoke German. Both of his parents died in Nazi concentration camps. He worked in a forced labor camp, which he barely survived. In many respects his poetry provided an outlet for “survivor’s remorse;” but that outlet ultimately failed him in 1970, when he committed suicide. Garner and Redmond each have their own approaches to creating music consistent with the darkness of the texts. Unfortunately, there are too many occasions on which McGuinness’ diction falls short of capturing those texts, even when the listener has a copy of the words at hand; and, sadly, her account of the English translation of Milosz does not fare much better.
On the other hand there is much to appreciate in the performances of all the instrumentalists. One might even conjecture that Zhao had acquainted herself with the texts of both Celan and Milosz while preparing her approach to Larsen’s suite. Similarly, the two interludes that Garner composed for Die eichne Tür tend to resonate with the expressive rhetoric of the Celan poems set in the other five movements.