Notes and Editorial Reviews
Song of Anguish, written in 1945, is a sprawling solo cantata for baritone and orchestra, based on the composer’s own selection of verses from Isaiah. As anyone familiar with Biblical literature will know, Isaiah was not one of the more cheerful Prophets. His “Woe unto them” cries and alarums are largely seen as foretelling of the Babylonian exile that would befall the children of Israel for their sins and iniquities, though serious Biblical scholarship has established almost to a certainty that the preachings were the work of at least two, and possibly three, different authors.
Foss’s choice of verses takes no account of Isaiah’s message of hope and redemption through repentance and return to God. Instead, the focus is on
“children dashed to pieces,” “cities wasted without inhabitant,” and the “land left utterly desolate.” Given the date of its composition—as the Nazi concentration camps were being emptied of their survivors and the world was finally beginning to grasp the enormity of the crimes against humanity—it is hardly surprising that Foss would have conceived the Song of Anguish as a recoil in horror to the unfolding events. In at least one surprising way, Foss’s writing in this work represents a leap forward to a post-modernistic style at a time when some of the most radical avant-gardism, like a virus, was still spreading. In this regard, Song of Anguish is both behind its time in terms of reflecting an earlier post-Romantic aesthetic, and ahead of its time in terms of predicting a return to a neo-Romantic aesthetic. Perhaps this is a too-clever-by-half way of describing a score that is easily grasped, dramatically gripping, and emotionally overwhelming. Rarely am I as drawn to modern music as I was to Song of Anguish. I listened to it three times in a row, and each time it grew in stature as I heard details not noticed the time before. Baritone James Maddalena carries off his extremely demanding part with honors. Elegy for Anne Frank was written for a 1989 commemorative concert entitled “Remembering Anne Frank,” held at New York’s Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine. The concert, in turn, was part of a larger “Anne Frank in the World: A 60th Anniversary Retrospective,” featuring a month-long series of conferences, events, and exhibitions. The Elegy exists in two versions, an instrumental-only form, as heard here, and one in which a narrator reads from Anne Frank’s diary. This piece, also very moving, strikes me as retaining some of the rhythmic and aural elements of Foss’s classic Time Cycle.
Adon Olam is a liturgical poem that traditionally closes the Sabbath service. Foss’s setting for solo tenor, chorus, and organ is so stunningly beautiful that I am even able to forgive tenor Mark Wilde’s intonation lapse of several seconds beginning at 3:47. The high notes sound like a real strain for him. But never mind that. The piece is absolutely exquisite, and in a highly unusual way. Adon Olam is traditionally sung by the congregation to one of two or three universally known traditional melodies that are distinguished by their upbeat character. This is not an especially solemn prayer; rather, it extols God as Creator, Redeemer, and Rock. Foss, however, sees the text in a more sober light, and provides a setting that is quietly rapturous and ecstatic. It reminded me of a Renaissance motet, updated, of course, with appropriately modern harmonies. Prior to receiving this release for review, I had no knowledge of Boston-born Robert Beaser (b. 1954). Please, Milken Archive, Naxos, anyone, give us more. If Foss’s Song of Anguish was neo-Romantic before its time, Beaser’s The Heavenly Feast is super-Romantic right on time (1994). To call this work an opera for solo soprano comes close to being an understatement, for it was commissioned by David Zinman and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra specifically for the celebrated American soprano Dawn Upshaw.
The text Beaser chose for the work was a poem by American poet Gjertrud Schnackenberg. It tells the strange story of an obviously deranged French philosopher, theosophist, anti-Fascist, mystic, Simone Weil, who “starved herself to death in a Kent, England, sanitarium, in the belief that the food she refused could somehow sustain the French Resistance behind enemy lines in German-occupied France.” Beaser describes Heavenly Feast as “an interior monologue at the gravesite of Simone Weil.” Less likely subjects for operas and dramatic vocal works surely exist, but the music to this particular necromancy is of such transcendent, other-worldly luminosity that I found myself putting the booklet aside, and saying “this is too beautiful to care what she’s singing about.” If there is a whiff of film score every now and then to this vast, windswept panorama, it is no more or less than one hears in a score like Debussy’s La mer. Dawn Upshaw is not the soprano in this performance, but she might as well be, that’s how glorious are the voice and singing of Constance Hauman. Schwarz and the Seattle SO match her every inflection.
Foss’s Song of Anguish and Adon Olam were, for me, redemptive of a composer whose music I have not particularly admired. Yet gorgeous as they both are, it was Beaser’s The Heavenly Feast that really got to me where I live. I’m afraid that this entry may end up bumping one of my annual Want List choices off the list.
Jerry Dubins, FANFARE
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Works on This Recording
Song of Anguish by Lukas Foss
James Maddalena (Baritone)
Elegy for Anne Frank by Lukas Foss
James Maddalena (Baritone),
Kevin McCutcheon (Piano)
Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1989/1999; USA
Lammdeni by Lukas Foss
Adon olom by Lukas Foss
Kevin McCutcheon (Piano),
James Maddalena (Baritone),
Mark Wilde (Tenor)
Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra,
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1951; USA
The Heavenly Feast by Robert Beaser
Lamdeni mi (Teach me): I. Barukh haggever
Lamdeni mi (Teach me): II. Va'eda ma
Lamdeni mi (Teach me): III. Mi al har horev
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