Notes and Editorial Reviews
BERLIOZ Les nuits d’été1. PALEJ The Poet and the War1. Rorate Coeli • Eric Paetkau, cond; 1Shannon Mercer (sop); group of 27 • CENTAUR 3239 (59:24 Text and Translation) Live: Toronto 4/1/2011
There are two different, and opposing, ways of performing French
style="font-style:italic">chansons. The first, which is really the traditional manner that existed until the middle of the 20th century, is to just sing the music as written with no “interpretation” in the sense of “acting out” lyrics. This was the style one heard in the recordings of Maggie Teyte, Jane Bathori, and even Suzanne Danco, whose career extended beyond midcentury. The other style is more in keeping with singers of German Lied, which is to interpret the lyric as if it were a dramatic piece or a poetry reading. This is the style pioneered after World War II, primarily by Gérard Souzay who considered himself a singer of equal merit in both types of songs. This can be heard in the recordings of Janet Baker, Régine Crespin, Carole Bogard, and virtually all singers of chanson since Souzay. Of course, early 20th-century French composers who wanted a bit more in the way of interpretation, particularly Ravel and Poulenc, began writing more dynamic changes and accents into their scores so that the singer would “interpret” the music and poetry exactly the way the composer conceived it.
I bring all this up because Shannon Mercer, whose voice I only knew from a superb recording of Bach’s St. John Passion with Monica Huggett on Avie, here gives us a reading in the older style. Even though my personal favorite recording of the Berlioz cycle is the one by mezzo Susan Graham, who does give more in the way of interpretation, I was immediately captivated by Mercer’s singing and could not stop listening and did not write a single word of comment until the entire cycle was finished. One reason why I found this performance so fascinating was the exceptional clarity of the orchestral texture. Conductor Paetkau and his “group of 27” bring out so many details in the orchestration that you just keep listening to hear all of them, but even within her generally less dramatic reading of the poetry Mercer does so much in the way of shading and dynamics that you wait with bated breath to hear how she will sing the next phrase, and the next, and the one after that. Despite having a small lyric voice and a very pure tone, Mercer constantly shades and colors her timbre like a master painter. I have not heard singing on this high a level of subtlety in expression since the days of Rita Streich, who was a much better singer of chanson and Lieder than many readers may recall. Every phrase is caressed so lovingly, the music emerging from her throat with a pearl-like shimmer and the dynamic changes so tastefully and subtly applied, that she makes of each song a special event. Sometimes her sound is strong and ringing, but more often it is fragile or wistful, and in this consistent metamorphosis of vocal timbre and color lies an entire universe of sound. You keep waiting for the spell to break, but it never does. This is the work of a master artist.
Surprisingly, even though the liner notes tell you all about Berlioz and Gauthier, when you reach the more obscure song cycle The Poet and the War there are only notes on the writer of the words, Krzysztof Kamil Baczy?ski, and little on the composer, although I got more from his website. Born in Krakow in 1977, he grew up in Communist Poland but fled to America where he finished his education. He has been assistant professor of composition at the University of Toronto since 2008 and also serves as director of the University of Toronto gamUT chamber orchestra and as artistic director of the annual New Music Festival. He holds composition degrees from Cornell University (D.M.A.), The Juilliard School (M.M.), and the New England Conservatory (B.M.) and is also an active concert pianist and conductor.
There are interesting similarities between this song cycle and Mieczys?aw Weinberg’s Eighth Symphony, Polish Flowers, which I review elsewhere in this issue. Both use poems that dwell on the harshness of life and particularly the brutalities of war. The main difference—and it is indeed tragic—is that this poet died in the Warsaw Uprising in 1944 at only 23 years of age, and his young wife, pregnant with their first child, died a few days later without ever knowing that her husband was also dead. Thus we have a truly sad and tragic situation which is reflected in the poetry and also in the music. Perhaps not surprisingly, Palej writes in a primarily tonal style but continually morphs the harmonic base to add considerable dramatic interest. Oddly, I would place his style as being closer to the music of Mahler or Dukas than to more modern composers, but Palej has definitely found his own voice. As he shifts the harmony, so too does the rhythm shift, and with it the orchestral sound. Despite the much stronger dramatic thrust of his music, for instance, I found similarities in the orchestral opening of the second song to Dukas’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice. This is by no means a criticism of lack of originality. Sometimes it’s good to go back to older models whose style was never really developed by composers of their own time in order to find inspiration in the present.
Once again, Mercer’s singing is exemplary, but alas her English diction is not good. It was only by following the words in the booklet that I learned that she was singing in English, and not in Polish. If Mercer sees this review, I would recommend that she listen very carefully to the records of British soprano Gwen Catley, a high coloratura of the 1940s whose English diction—even at or above a high C—was always crystal-clear. Yet clouded diction is the only nit one can pick in this performance, which is, again, shaded and colored, the legato line arched and contoured like a master violinist.
The concert ends with an orchestral piece by Palej, the Allegro feroce from his Rorate Coeli. Truth to tell, only the opening and closing sections are feroce; the middle section contains some truly exquisite pages of music. Here, too, one hears the influence of Mahler but also some Ben Britten. Palej’s lyrical sections in this score are exquisitely crafted, perhaps bordering a bit on popular song form but never treacly or lacking in interest. Palej seems to delight, in fact, in juxtaposing these agitated and lyrical states of mind and music, producing a work that somehow manages to maintain its integrity as a continuous piece. In some places, it’s almost difficult to realize that it is only being played by 27 musicians, so full and rich are the textures, and here, perhaps more so than elsewhere, Paetkau shows how good he is in shaping and pacing this music. Particularly interesting is the second lyrical segment, in which the strings are not merely divided between cellos and violins but, it seems, divided within each of those sections as well. Paetkau manages to bring out the canon form written into the score as if it were a perfectly natural moment, like breathing out of one’s nose and mouth simultaneously. The “group of 27” has more of a sharp sound profile than a lush one, which is always my preference when listening to orchestras, and in this piece the approach works splendidly.
In short, this is a “must-get” item if you are a fan of Les nuits d’été, modern music in a lyrical vein, or just plain outstanding performance quality. With this disc, Shannon Mercer shoots to near the top of sopranos I will be on the lookout for in the future, and Paetkau is a conductor I’ll make note of as well.
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley Read less
Works on This Recording
Les nuits d'été, Op. 7 by Hector Berlioz
Shannon [Soprano Vocal] Mercer ()
Group Of Twenty-seven
Written: 1840-1841; France
Date of Recording: 04/01/2011
Venue: Grace Church on-the-Hill, Toronto, Ontar
Length: 28 Minutes 24 Secs.
Rorate Coeli, for orchestra by Norbert Palej
Date of Recording: 04/01/2011
Venue: Grace Church on-the-Hill, Toronto, Ontar
Length: 10 Minutes 56 Secs.
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