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Harbison: Montale Occasions / Janice Felty, Judith Gordon

Release Date: 01/22/2008 
Label:  Albany Records   Catalog #: 997   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  John Harbison
Performer:  Janice FeltyJudith Gordon
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 0 Hours 56 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

HARBISON Motetti di Montale. 1,2 Montale Sketches 2 Janice Felty (mez); 1 Judith Gordon (pn) 2 ALBANY TROY 997 (55:44 Text and Translation)

I have admired John Harbison’s (b.1938) Motetti di Montale for a long time now, having first come to know the Read more work in its arrangement for voice and nine players. This recording, however, gives us the original 1980 version for mezzo-soprano and piano, and it argues the work’s virtues in a more intimate and deeply persuasive manner.

The cycle is based on a set of love poems, Le occasioni (“The Occasions”) by Eugenio Montale (1896–1981), the 1975 Nobel laureate. I’ve come to feel over the years that it may be the greatest song cycle written in the last three decades. Certainly it’s astonishing that music so utterly natural in its feel for the Italian language should come from an American composer, but there you are. The music is exceptional for its subtle but overflowing imagination. Every single song has a memorable motive or gesture that captures the sense of the poem surely and concisely. Harbison has threaded a scrupulous path between the influences of his predecessors and teachers. On the one hand, he has never shied away from the chromatic practice of Roger Sessions, and through him, Central European modernism. But he’s also always had a hunger for the clarity of thought and expression embodied in neo-Classicism. The mix between these two has only gotten more rich and satisfying over the years. I think he’s one of the few contemporary composers who has embraced tradition successfully, in a sort of ongoing dialogue with it as a living entity. I find myself thinking of Schubert and Brahms as I listen to this music, though never in the sense of it being an easy knockoff. There is a deeply conceived harmonic practice there that sounds natural in its evolution from the 19th-century repertoire, but it’s also still utterly of this time.

There are two earlier recordings of the piece in its large-ensemble version. Koch 7545 gives all four books of the cycle, with Felty for 1 and 2, Margaret Lattimore for 3 and 4 (accompanied by Collage New Music under David Hoose). Archetype 66106 is now a treasure for collectors, because though it has only 3 and 4, they are sung by Loraine Hunt (before she was Hunt Lieberson) with the Greenleaf Chamber Players. While both these deserve to be bought on their merits, they don’t take away from the importance of this new release. The beauties of the piece come forward in different ways in the two versions, rather as in the case of the Mahler song cycles. There’s a wonderful intimacy and immediacy in the duo format, and I’m a little surprised to say that the freshness of the cycle’s harmonies comes through even more clearly via the timbrally neutral medium of piano. Add to this the Montale Sketches , which are three short piano pieces from 2002 inspired by Montale poems, and you have an essential disc.

Janice Felty has a sumptuous instrument, though at times I sense a little wear around the edges. But frankly there’s so much musicianship and deep sensitivity to the text and vocal line that it doesn’t bother me. When it’s a little less than perfect, it’s like rumpled velvet. Judith Gordon is a perfectly attuned accompanist. In the solo pieces, I find her touch at times a little too steely, but not enough to detract from the music’s power. Don’t take these quibbles out of context, though; these are magnificent performances.

The whole production is a class act. The recorded sound is pure and beautiful. There are full texts and translations, as well as an essay on Montale’s poetry. The cover is a Morandi still life, and in the booklet there’s a brief biography of the painter, himself a sort of visual artistic analog to the world of Montale’s words. This might well be a Want List item for this year.

FANFARE: Robert Carl
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Works on This Recording

Motetti di Montale by John Harbison
Performer:  Janice Felty (Mezzo Soprano), Judith Gordon (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: USA 
Notes: Composition written: USA (1980 - 2000). 
Montale Sketches (3) for Piano by John Harbison
Performer:  Judith Gordon (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 

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